Skepticism in the face of Rejection

Hello dear reader, look around you, wherever you are. You might be sitting on your couch and reading this blog post now, but can you truly be certain of that? How do you know you’re not actually dreaming of sitting on your couch and reading this blog post? Or how do you know that you’re not simply a brain in a vat, and someone is feeding you false sensory signals, causing you to perceive that you’re sitting on a couch and reading a blog post?

These scenarios might sound insane or improbable, but can you prove that you’re not in a dream or you’re not a brain in a vat? You can’t. And that’s philosophical skepticism in a nutshell! The skeptics believed that we can’t trust our senses and we can never really be completely certain of anything. Having to doubt everything all the time is a real hassle, but as of late I’ve been able to find some solace in the wisdom of the skeptics.

In ancient Greece, the Pyrrhonian skeptics strongly believed that as long as we do not have complete knowledge of a certain event, we should suspend our judgement of it. And when you suspend judgement, especially the negative ones, it makes a huge difference in your response to events.

I’m in my second year of university and so far, it has been completely different from how I had envisioned the experience to be, and not just because of corona. I had a few plans prior to starting school – I wanted to stay in a residential college (like a dorm), I wanted to join NUS Hackers and I wanted to go on an exchange programme to another country. Well, how did my plans turn out? My residential college application was rejected, I failed the NUS Hackers interview and more recently, my exchange programme application was rejected.

Dealing with rejection after rejection can be rough, and it definitely made me question my competencies. But from the skeptic’s perspective, you can never have complete knowledge of your rejection. It might seem bad, but perhaps there is a much better opportunity down the line that you would miss out on had you been accepted instead. By adopting the wisdom of the Pyrrhonian skeptics and suspending my judgement of each rejection, I was able to remain open-minded instead of wallowing in self-pity (although I did for a while).

The practice of suspending our judgement is not a mere coping mechanism, it is actually a very rational way of thinking. We don’t know everything so we shouldn’t be so quick to conclude that things are bad. As you can probably tell by now, I’m clearly terrible at conclusions so I’ll just end off with a famous but apt saying.

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.

Alexander Graham Bell

Sabrina (1995)

No, this isn’t a movie review, but yes, there will probably be some mini spoilers, so read on at your own risk. For those who know me, you know that I love a good romance film. And Sabrina was my most recent discovery. Starring Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond, it was a really sweet and classy romance movie. It’s apparently a remake of the original 1954 movie. It’s not a very highly rated movie but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

What really stood out to me was the dialogue. Some of the lines were so well written, it was almost poetic, leaving the audience to read between the lines a little. Here’s are some snippets of dialogue from different parts of the movie.

Sabrina: You probably don’t believe in marriage
Linus: Yes, I do. That’s why I never got married.

Sabrina: I thought it was all a lie.
Linus: It was. It was a lie… but then it was a dream.

David: You’re talking about my life.
Linus: I pay for your life, David. My life makes your life possible.
David: I resent that.
Linus: So do I.

Sabrina : What was Linus like as a boy?
Fairchild : Shorter.

There are a lot more lines like this, but I can’t be quoting the entire movie can I? If you’re still unconvinced about watching this movie, picture a slightly awkward but still confident Han Solo. That’s basically Linus Larrabee, the character played by Harrison Ford, which is still, obviously, ridiculously charming. Perhaps that might pique your interest a little more.

The Stoic guide to friendship

If you’re wondering who am I to comment on the topic of friendship, I’ll have you know I have a grand total of 5 friends, so you’re in pretty good hands. But you don’t have to take my word for it, for this wisdom comes from the ancient Stoics themselves. And if you’re wondering what the Stoics have to say about friendship, the answer is well, quite a bit actually.

Contrary to the common misconception of Stoics being unfeeling and cold, the Stoics actually share the belief that humans are social beings and acknowledge the importance and power of friendship. Here’s what Seneca has to say about the joys of new and old friendships:

Great pleasure is to be found not only in keeping up an old and established friendship but also in beginning and building up a new one.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Seeing the true value of friendships, the Stoic approach was strict but very intentional. Seneca cautioned against a flimsy understanding of friendship and advises us to think hard about who we consider our friends.

But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship… Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Marcus Aurelius and Seneca also wrote about “red flags” in friendships. We should look out for these not only in our friends, but also in ourselves and how we have been treating our friends.

There’s nothing worse than a wolf befriending sheep. Avoid false friendship at all costs. If you are good, straightforward, and well meaning it should show in your eyes and not escape notice.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began; he has secured a friend who is going to come to his aid if captivity threatens: at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear. These are what are commonly called fair-weather friendships. A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Though I’ve shared many quotes, this is really just a sneak peek into the wealth of wisdom that the Stoics have to offer on the seemingly fundamental concept of friendship. Perhaps most of these sound like common sense to you, but as Voltaire succinctly puts it, “common sense is not so common”.