If there is one good thing that came out of all that happened in the world over the past couple of years is that many of us, including myself have become very aware of how fragile life is. As a result, we have all become bakers, photographers, painters, musicians, etc. Uncertainity and boredom has drivern us to pursue some of the things that we have been keeping for later.
Before I started dabbling in Stoicism in early part of 2020, looking for some sanity in the middle of a highly busy schedule at work, I thought that it was interesting that people have suddenly realised the fragile nature of life. Humans are excellent at convincing themselves that we are going to be here for ever. Death is something that would never come to us, in spite of the obvious proof.
And the result? Sold out bottle of vanilla extract, cocoa powder and baking powder in supermarkets and grocery stores. Yes, I tried my hand at baking as well, with little success. Only thing I learnt to make was a good thin crust pizza 🍕. I was going through existential crisis like everyone else. Combine that with months of intense work schedule, no social life and binge eating, you got yourself a recipe for physical and mental breakdown.
One of those days of insomnia when sleep was evading me till 7 am in the morning, I stumbled upon what I believe was Ryan Holiday's video on how Marcus Aurelius lived through a pandemic himself. YouTube algorithm you see. I ended up watching video after video on his channel and was learning more about stoic philoshophy.
This incredible philosophy resonated with me mostly becuase I was already practising some of these principles unknowingly since a few years. I wouldn't go into deeper details of all of Stoic teachings and philosophies, I believe Ryan has already done a great ob with that, but I shall list down few ideas that resonated with me and you can decide if Stoicism is worth our time to explore and maybe follow.
Keep in mind as I pen these down sitting in a cozy coffee shop in the center of the city listening to Norah Jones' interview on Apple Music, couple of millenias have passed since these pricinciples were first thought of, discussed and taught.
We are always at the mercy of the events outside our control
This might be very relateable to all of us. Last couple of years, we have seen something happen that most of us haven't seen in our lifetime. None of us would've ever guessed that 2020 would turn into such a downer of a year. We had our new years resolution lined up ready to go with this year.
One of my main goal this and last year was to travel more. I got married last year and one of the things my wife and I wanted to do more of, wa to travel. Even if it mean just heading off to a mountain or a beach over a long weekend. All we could manage was one trip during the last 18 months due to obvious reasons. The rest of the year has been mostly shuttling between the first and ground floors of my house for work, food and sleep.
During the initial few days of countrywide lockdown, it was difficult. I had a craxy bout of insomnia for a few days and the whole of April was a very busy time at work, with a couple of weekends being extended weekdays. I felt anger and frustration inside and was almost burning myself out. Loss of sleep added to the problem. Generally not a pessimistic person, I started feeling negative about life.
Stoic philosphy that we are at a mercy of events outside of our control made me realise that there isn't much I could do about what is happening in the world and that I should find myself ways of keeping sanity and figure out ways to get myself through this mind bogglingly crappy situation we are all in.
Control what you can and accept what you can't
As an extension to the earlier philosphy, we can control only what we can. But most of our life is spent in worrying about things that we cannot control. If we are honest with ourselves, we tend to get frustrated about things we have no control over.
I have seen some of my friends complain about Bangalore traffic while they are out and about. Just taking a step back and thinking would make them realise that they are in fact, yes you guessed it, part of that very 'traffic'. I end up in traffic as well, but I convert that time into my time to listen to a long podcast or listening time to finish off the playlist on my phone. Not because that is the only time to do these things, but because there is nothing much I can do about the traffic, so why not do something which would take you away from the frustration of being stuck for hours on end.
Recently the southern part of India has been drenched on rain since weeks. Maybe a good time to wind up at home with a cup of hot coffee and kickstart the popular Korean series on Netflix? That would avoid the frustration of not being able to head out for the weekend. It is a mindset change.
"Our life's purpose is to distinguish things into ones we can control and ones we cannot" - Epictetus
This stoic concept is referred to as the Dichotomy of Control. Epictetus was a stoic philosopher who was also a slave. But that did not stop him from making the most out of his life and teaching the principles he believed in. As he says, we need to understand and accept the things that we cannot control and stop worrying about them. Instead, start thinking about things you can control and focus your work there.
In a more modern and practical sense, the above can be stated as - "If there is something that upsets you about the world, change it or change your attitude".
Marcus Aurelius wrote in his journal Meditations -
It stares you in the face. No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.
Memento Mori - death is knocking on the door
Death is the ultimate destination for all of us that we seldom think about. We live our life as if it goes on forever and are good at making five year and ten year plans knowing that death comes unnanounced. I am not sure if I would make it home all the way after writing this article. But if you are reading this then you may assume that I did, because I plan to publish this once I am home.
Remembering death can come at any time is not to dismiss life as a direct path to the end and not bring meaning to it. It must be taken as a cue to make it meaningful every day. To live in the present without regrets of the past and anxiety about the future. Again, this is not to discourage planing. Only a reminder that in being busy planning for a whole future, for the events that haven't occured yet, once must not forget to live the present - the only time directly in our control.
The pandemic has taken lives of many who we loved and cared for and we have been left with regret of not being able to live the best life with the people we cared for. But if we keep in mind that death can come any time and take us away from our loved ones, wouldn't we live a more mindful life?
Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford commencement speach said-
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
If you have heard the general advice from people or are familiar with the book "The Secret" (which is a whole new discussion altogether), you might have heard the importance of positive visualisation. The type where you visualise yourself living the life you want and which eventually gets materialised. Totally a good thing to do which helps motivate you to do better in life.
American researcher, author and speaker James C. Collins, in is management book Good to Great, writes about a conversation he had with United States Navy Vice Admiral and aviator James Stockdale. Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honour for his service in the Vietnam War during which he was held as a prisoner of war for seven years.
When Collins asked Stockdale how he was able to survive the brutality of being held a PoW in Hanoi, he mentioned-
I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.
Along with Stockdale, there were others held as PoW in the prison camp. Some of them never made it back to the United States. When asked about the people who did not make it out, he said-
Oh, that's easy, the Optimists. Oh they were the ones who said, "We're going to be out by Christmas'. Christmas would come, Christmas would go. Then they'd say, "We're going to be out by Easter'. Easter would come, and easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of broken heart.
Stockdale then summarised it all with this statement-
This is very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with decispline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
Collins called this The Stockdale Paradox. Although we should not give up on being optimistic about future and life in general, it is always better to think of how bad things can get of something goes wrong. This whole situation wasn't in my 2020-21 planner for sure, but it did make me re-evaluate my life and choices and exposed the weaknesses in my life.
In conclusion, we will all get through this. After years of self-help, it becomes easy to sniff out BS from priciples that can be applied to life. Stoicism has been helpful to me at a time when I needed it the most and made it easier to cope with whatever was happening with my life.
The only way is to improve yourself.
"The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here is how the math works out: if you can get 1% better each day for one year, you'll end up 37 times better by the time you are done" - James Clear
In a time that we were busy chasing after things that probably never mattered, a sudden change in what is considered to be normal has made us think about our priorities.
"Be grateful for your blessings" - Marcus Aurelius