Stoicism is not about grim endurance and suffering, feeling no emotion and being masochistic.
In fact, it can be the exact opposite. There is an emphasis on free will and the power to control our own minds.
I first discovered this was possible when I was about seven years old. A teacher was yelling at me for being appalling at sports. I have always been short and clumsy so, as much as I love to exercise, competitive sports are not my strong point. As her voice screeched on at me, telling me I was useless and inept, I realised something. I could listen to her (and then feel terrible about myself) or I could just think about something else.
So I thought about fairies. Or dogs. Or something. For the first time in my life, I felt an awareness of my own control over my internal world. Of course, it was a long time before I learned about the philosophy behind that concept.
This is a part of the process of growing up.
As babies and small children, we all rely on other people to modulate our emotions. Cry and someone will hug you. Graze a knee and someone will put a plaster on it. Say you are hungry and someone will make you a PB&J sandwich.
Then you grow up a bit, start school and that is no longer as acceptable. We have to learn to regulate our feelings. Maybe this is through talking to a stuffed toy, hugging a friend, or aggression. We get better at this with time. We learn self-reliance and autonomy bit by bit.
After that come the teenage years and early adulthood. For 99.9% of people, this is a time of confusion and illogical amounts of pain. It’s a time of life when mental illness, substance abuse and bad decisions are rife.
I can recall with crystal clarity all the unhealthy ways I tried to manage my emotions as a teenager.
Most people I know these days are stressed, sleep deprived, and struggle to maintain healthy relationships. You probably are too. My generation has not inherited a world which is easy to be happy in. Debt is almost universal, jobs are uncertain, the future is unclear, mental health problems are rife.
Think of this extract from a letter which EE Cummings wrote his sister in the 1930s:
‘NOTHING IS SO DIFFICULT AS TO BE ALIVE!!!!!! which is the ONLY THING WHICH YOU CANNOT LEARN ever,from anyone,anywhere: it must come out of you;and it never can,until you have KNOCKED DOWN AND CARRIED OUT all the teachable swill.’
In short, no one can teach you how to live. Sure, people will try. The government, the media, employers, parents, partners, teachers, friends etc. People will tell you what job you should do, what you should study, who you should love and what you should do with your body. But no one can control what goes on inside your mind without your consent.
Stoicism as a philosophy is about how to be in control of your life. When it comes to surviving the modern world, gaining autonomy over one’s own mind is essential.
Here is a simplified summary of the core principles:
- Bad stuff happens. Life is messy and full of curveballs.
- This causes anxiety, frustration, anger and other negative emotions.
- These diminish the quality of our lives.
- Life is finite and too precious to allow bad events to ruin it.
- We cannot prevent them from happening.
- BUT we can control how we react to them.
- By controlling our reactions to bad events, we can avoid those negative emotions.
- As a result, they do not impact our quality of life to the same degree.
- This enables us to make better use of our limited amount of time alive.
- As a consequence, we can be content regardless of our external circumstances.
In the words of Marcus Aurelius, one of the most important Stoic philosophers:
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
There is a lot we cannot control, so learning to master your responses is crucial.
Everyone seems to be obsessed with motivation and productivity these days.How can we make our work perfect? How can we make our lives perfect? How can we make ourselves perfect?
Simple, just drink lemon water, salute the sunrise and organize your inbox, or whatever else the self-help sites are touting this week.
What all this modern talk of routines and plans fails to take into account the curve balls which life throws at us.
We focus on making every detail of our lives perfect and neglect our minds. And guess what — nothing you do can prevent shit from happening. Things go wrong, on a small scale or a big scale.
Let’s take the start of my Christmas holidays for example. I was all set for a few weeks of working on my assignments and writing, reading piles of books and going to the gym. Yes, that is my idea of a dream holiday.
Then the inevitable disaster struck. I spent the first night of the holidays in the hospital, after a freak allergic reaction and was immobile for a few days. I couldn’t read, write or work. All I did was sleep, cry and panic. I am okay now, just about.
As John Lennon said, life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. It’s inevitable. It is also scary and unnerving. We can’t plan or prepare for it.
This is where Stoicism comes in. I have been working on integrating Stoic philosophy into my life for several years now. I am certain it might be the most useful concept possible in our current era. Actually, Stoicism is useful for just about everyone, everywhere, every time. That is why it is still discussed and used two millennia after its beginnings.
If, like me, you are a neurotic millennial with a chequered past and uncertain future, then I cannot recommend adopting a stoic mindset highly enough.
It will not solve all your problems. Most of the big issues my generation faces are out of our control. Believing that you can change the world is not always beneficial, whatever your parents told you.
Repeat after me. I cannot bring about world peace, halt global warming, stop animal abuse and make the entire planet happy. I can do a lot of good in my life but I cannot do everything. My priority is myself, my own happiness, health and wellbeing.
In truth, this is not a guide as such. It is more of an invitation. Stoicism is not designed to reduce down to click-bait articles or life hacks. I don’t claim to know everything about it or even much at all. At the same time, I disagree with the idea of philosophy only being accessible to those who have a PhD in it.
Give it a go. Read some books on the topic. Try it out. Figure out how it can help you negotiate life. Remember that the original founders of Stoicism were doing just the same. Time may have turned them into semi-mythical, godlike figures. But Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and the rest were human beings like you and I. They figured it out and, with a little more philosophy, we all can too.
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