I stumbled across Stoicism some time ago - around the time that my mother passed away. Losing her was devastating, and it bought death to the forefront of my mind. It encouraged me to ponder my death and question what matters in life. Since her passing was rather tragic (suicide) it spurred a quest for discovering what a happy and meaningful life is. And how one can prevent severe depression.
Stoicism appeared in literature I was reading at the time. And it also coincided with a meeting with a life coach who happens to appreciate the philosophy. There are various elements of stoicism that we can all learn from, which may help us look at life a little differently. And perhaps live more fully.
There are books detailing Stoicism in great lengths, and it can get a little overwhelming sifting through it all. But from what I gather in various texts and talks by Stoics, it can be explained quite simply.
Which is what I will attempt to do here.
In early 3rd century BC, a philosopher named Zeno of Citium gathered with followers on Stoa Poikile (painted porch), a decorative colonnade on the north side of Athens. Zeno and his followers wished to gather here in the common marketplace to make it easy for all to listen and participate. He became the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy - Stoic named after the porch they gathered upon.
Stoicism became popular because its teachings were understood and applied by the masses. No matter what path we each walk in life, the Stoic teachings can help guide us to living well.
The main principles of Stoicism
There are two fundamental ideas of the philosophy:
Virtue: to be a good person
The dichotomy of control: living in accordance with nature
Virtue or living with areté refers to morality and excellence of character. It’s about being the best version of yourself in the here and now, fulfilling your natural potential. It means living rationally and wisely, having physical and moral courage, living in harmony with others in a way that is good for all of humanity, and temperance - doing things in the right measure. Not too little, not too much.
The dichotomy of control is understanding that some things are within our control, and some are not. Our opinions, judgements and values are within our control. We can reflect on them, changing them over time to be the best person that we can be. Then there are events which are thrown upon us that are not within our control - like an accident, being demoted, or cancer. It is in these times that accepting that which we cannot control will help us feel peace within ourselves. We let nature play out as it is, and deal with it in the best way that we can. We don’t have to let it reduce our happiness. We can still live well despite it.
So essentially Stoics understand that with life comes struggle and pain. We can do our best to look after ourselves to avoid such struggle and pain. But if it falls upon us, then we don’t let ourselves fall apart. We practice resilience and move forward as best as we can.
How Stoics build resilience
The Stoics used contemplative exercises to build resilience. Two such exercises are:
The view from above: picture events from high above
Negative visualisation: imagine the worst that can happen in life
The view from above exercise is like widening the lens in which we perceive events. When we can pause and look at the bigger picture, then it can give us a more realistic perspective. When we are anxious our field of attention is very narrow. The more we practice looking from above, the better we get at perceiving distressing events as temporary. We can think, as the Persian adage implies, “this too shall pass.”
Stoics also practise negative visualisation. They reflect on tragic events and imagine the worst that can happen in life - like losing all of your possessions or a loved one. The belief is that thinking of the worst-case scenario prepares us mentally to cope with pain and suffering. It may seem a little negative and pessimistic, but doing this helps us build resilience and better able to handle adversity. It also makes us feel grateful for what we have right in front of us.
This exercise of negative visualisation reminds me of something that I read about Danish parenting. Danes often rank as the happiest people on Earth. Children aren’t bought up reading only books with happy endings. It’s quite common to read fairy tales, children's literature, and poetry that have dark themes and tragic endings. It teaches children that we can’t always avoid getting hurt, but that we can healthily handle real-life experiences. And that these difficulties don’t have to break us. It teaches them empathy - understanding the pain that another may be feeling. And gratitude - appreciating the simple things in life.
Balancing the roles we play in life
There is another teaching of Stoicism that talks about the roles we play in life. We all play several roles. They are:
Our basic role as human beings
Roles that are given to us by circumstance - son or daughter
Roles we choose - career, mother or father
Each role expects different things from us. Requiring us to act in a certain way that is appropriate to each role. The goal isn’t to reach perfection for each role, but to be the best that we can be. And to be a little better than we were yesterday.
We can ask ourselves, “Is this good for humanity?”. If not, then don’t do it. We can ask, “will this help my boss or coworkers, my mother or father, or my son or daughter?”. If not, then again, don’t do it. In each role, we have the responsibility to exercise the best choice we can make.
So how can we bring the Stoic teachings into our own lives?
Within my life, Stoicism has helped me navigate the feelings of losing my mum. At the time I blamed myself for her death and wondered if I did enough to help her. With the guidance of a psychologist, she helped me widen the lens and look at the 20 years preceding. I realised that I did all that I could for her, but despite what any of us did, or what she did to help herself, she decided to no longer be here.
While of course it still saddens me, I look at her death as a turning point in my life. It encouraged me to see that even through tragedy there is beauty and lessons to learn. I now look more closely at what is before me - noticing the subtleties and beauty within it all. Even amidst the chaos. I feel grateful to have this time, for who knows what tomorrow shall bring.
Stoicism teaches us that each day we try to be the best version of our true selves, in whatever role we play. We let go of perfectionism, and simply try to be a little wiser, empathetic and courageous than we were yesterday. We accept that life brings pain and suffering - that it’s a natural part of life and can’t always be avoided. And that whatever is thrown upon us we navigate and move through as best as we possibly can. And beneath it all, we are aware that all of life is fleeting. That what comes into this world must also go. To truly feel happy and flourish, it helps to appreciate all the beauty that exists before us in our daily life.
“He is a wise man who does not grove for the things which he has not,
but rejoices for those which he has.”