4 Lessons From Stoicism For Uncertain Times
How to deal with uncertainty, fear and adversity
Stoicism is a school of Greek philosophy which was founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoic school of thought is still alive, well and active, with myriad podcasts, self-help books and websites dedicated to expounding and explaining the philosophy.
Moreover, many are turning to this ancient school for guidance in the current pandemic, particularly to the work of Roman Emperor Marcus Auerlius who lived through a smallpox Pandemic and journalled his thoughts throughout. Writing in the Guardian, Donald Robertson went as far to say about this journal: “It’s no stretch of the imagination to view The Meditations as a manual for developing precisely the mental resilience skills required to cope with a pandemic.”
Three of the most notable thinkers of this school of thought are Marcus Auerlius (121–180 AD), Seneca (65 AD) and Epictetus (50–135 AD) and — despite 2000 years between us and them — their wisdom continues to offer invaluable guidance for how to respond to uncertainty, adversity and fear. Without further ado, here are 4 lessons from Stoicism to help us navigate the current pandemic and resultant uncertainty.
- It Is Futile To Worry About Things Out Of Our Control
Stoicism emphasises that it is absurd to invest your wellbeing in things that are not in your control, such as status or material wealth. This idea is central to Stoicism, and is known by modern Stoics as “The Dichotomy Of Control.” Stoics argue that once you accept the limits of your control, it paradoxically puts your mind at ease, as well as minimising frustration when things happen despite your expectations.
In short, Stoicism says that the wise man focuses on his response to external and unpredictable external events, not on trying to bend the world to his will. Or as Marcus Aurelius says: “two things alone suffice him, justice in his daily dealings and contentment with all fates apportioning”. Though this sounds like a creed of passivity, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to alter outcomes for the better, it simply stresses that it is futile to waste mental and physical energy trying to control the uncontrollable.
Take our current situation for instance — unless you are a scientist working on a vaccine — no amount of thought or exertion will make the pandemic disappear, and as such, we should focus on the factors we can influence, namely our “judgements, impulses and desires…Everything else is, Epictetus suggests, ultimately out of our control, including our own bodies, our material possession, our reputation and our worldly success”.
2. How We Feel About Events Is A Choice
Stoicism heavily influenced early CBT, the dominant method of western psychotherapy, especially in the idea that our feelings about thoughts or events are judgements and not uncontrollable responses. Central to stoicism is the belief, in the words of Epictetus, that::
“We suffer not from the events in our life, but from our judgments about them”.
Stoics often insist that if someone provokes you and you react, your mind was complicit in this. Similarly, if we see an event as catastrophic, it is because we have made a judgment about it. Now, Stoics are not saying that a pandemic is a neutral value and we must see it as a good thing, what Stoics are saying is that it can be an opportunity for moral growth — if only we would see it as such.
Epictetus uses death as a prime example, asking us, “Is it good or bad?” Well, he says, Socrates did not fear death, and many other philosophies did not either; so evidently, if we fear it, this is the judgment we make of death. Stoics argue that of course we all feel fear when we are threatened or angered, but until you act on this initial natural response (which they call “first movements”) they do not believe that the emotion was realised.
According to Stoics, then, the pandemic offers us time for growth and self development, if only we would judge it as such.
3. Adversity Can Help Develop Us As People
Stoics argue that adversity is a chance to practice virtue; a training exercise for our moral characters. Naturally, this isn’t asking us to chase suffering; it just asks us to be ready in the event it comes. Seneca argues that people whose lives are defined by endless comfort and luxury are the “unlucky ones”, as they never get a chance to develop their characters, learn something about themselves or put beliefs into practice.
Yes, Lockdown is tough and many of us may face financial difficulties in light of it, but we can change our judgement and see this as an opportunity to practice courage, loyalty, kindness and fortitude.
4. Fear Is Often Worse Than What’s Feared
Another Stoic idea is that fear is often worse than the event feared, or as 16th century essayist Montaigne succinctly puts it:
“He who fears he shall suffer, suffers what he fears”.
The point being made is this: if you fear something you suffer twice, and what’s more, our fears are often worse than the actual suffering. Not only that, but anxiety prevents us enjoying whatever we do have.
Seneca once wrote to counsel a friend who faced disgrace and financial ruin, but he didn’t do what you might expect. Instead of telling him everything would be okay, his title would be restored and his riches preserved, Seneca did the opposite. In response to his friend’s anxieties, he wrote: “If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen”. Seneca’s point was that whilst what he feared may be bad, the reality is rarely as horrific as our anxieties lead us to believe.
Let’s say you have been made redundant or have broken up with a partner; people have lost jobs and managed to recover and thrive, people have been dumped and found other partners; and people have lost titles and lead happy lives all the same. Most of the time, we are more than equipped to handle the things we fear. Seneca also asks us — even when we are living comfortably — to keep the possibility of ruin healthily present, so if it does come true, we are well prepared for it.
Continuing, Seneca asks us to take each day as it comes, neither worrying about tomorrow or ruminating about the past. Take the pandemic for instance: you can spend every day racked with anxiety that you might fall ill, but this won’t stop that eventuality.
Seneca offers a far better alternative: “the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organises everyday as though it were his last, neither longs for or fears the next day”.
Making Sense of Stoicism
In short, practice good hygiene, social distance and enjoy every day as if it were your last. Make every day an end in itself and accept that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Spend time with the family, do the things you love and make every day count.
Is it not better, if catastrophe does strike, for it to find us doing human things than huddled in a corner scared? Enjoy what you have every day, instead of ruining it’s enjoyment with fears that it could be taken tomorrow. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, inspired by such thinking, “the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”
Written by Ross Carver-Carter
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