Recall Epictetus’ wisdom that sometimes good philosophy feels more like a trip to the hospital than a spa. (Ouch!)
Seneca echoes this wisdom in Letters from a Stoic where he says, “Be harsh with yourself at times.”
Now, of course, this does NOT mean that we need to go around like that albino monk from The da Vinci Code mutilating ourselves. (Yowsers!)
It DOES mean that, at times, with a base of (and, ultimately, OUT OF a deep sense of) self-compassion, we need to give ourselves a Zen stick to the head and wake up from the bad habits that might be dragging us down.
As with the virtuous mean chat we had awhile ago, there’s a virtuous mean here.
TOO MUCH harshness is destructive — we’ll develop a sense of self-loathing that Aristotle would consider a vice of excess.
TOO LITTLE harshness on the other hand, and we run the risk of being a bit too self-contented. That would be a vice of deficiency.
The virtuous mean rests right there in the middle path — where we’re appropriately correcting our weaknesses WITHOUT self-criticism per se, just a nice firm “needs work” look in the eye as we embody more and more of our ideals.
The great Sufi philosopher Rumi comes to mind. He tells us: “This discipline and rough treatment are a furnace to extract the silver from the dross. This testing purifies the gold by boiling the scum away.”
In other words, be harsh with yourself at times. Check yourself into the hospital for the surgery. Throw yourself into the furnace.
Let’s extract the silver from the dross. Purify the gold within by boiling away the scum.
Now. And again and again and again.
With a knowing, joyful, Stoic-Sufi-Optimizing smile.