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A Semester of Stoicism

Confronted with change, and disillusioned with a place I loved, I kept steady with the Stoics.

The routine that became a remedy. 

During the holidays this year, my sister had gotten my dad a book entitled The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and The Art of Living, by Ryan Holiday. My father, like many fathers that I know, is infamous for being difficult to buy gifts for. This gift was no exception, not because he didn’t like it, but because he had already bought the book for himself. So, my sister’s copy came back with me after break to my home at the University of Michigan to start a winter semester that I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for.

During my three years, I have come to love this University. But I dreaded coming back for the second semester of my Junior year because it lacked all the stability that I had grown accustomed to. Many of my friends were headed to fabulous semesters abroad. Those that were still here I had grown distant from as we had become encumbered with carving out our own paths. My own path, was also a source of anxiety, given that the next stage of my life was rapidly around the corner. And I was returning to school with no relationship to come back for.

The transition into Junior year was no less difficult than the new start in freshmen year. After a difficult breakup over the summer with my first “real” boyfriend, Mark, I became dismayed over the power that the emotions I had for him, had on me. I made the same mistakes as I did when I was a competitive tennis player. I would have a sizable lead, only to result in my improbable loss. My mother said that it was because I was playing not to lose, instead of playing to win¾ a product of my struggles with depression and anxiety. With Mark, I began to plot out every detail and action to present myself as the perfect boyfriend. But when this slipped up, my mood would flip towards anxious, clingy, and obsessive.

I wanted to change my behavior, but simple awareness wasn’t enough. When I fell for a closeted boy this past fall, a tenuous basis for a relationship, I returned to my same well-practiced habits. He could not both fix my extremist emotional expressions and the situation that prevented us from really being together. Even though I knew what I was doing was making matters worse, I only knew how to control my emotions by letting someone else dictate them.

Through reading, I finally found something that could make me feel rooted. Around New Year’s, I set an intention to read The Daily Stoic every day, and journal about it when I felt I had something that I needed to say. I was beginning to follow the motto of author and retired Navy SEAL, Jocko Willink, which was “Discipline Equals Freedom”, in a time when I so desperately needed to be freed from myself.

Stoicism is thought of as an indifference to what has happened. But I will never be impartial towards my own life. Instead, it keeps my eyes always looking forward. The best way I can describe this to you is by describing a little bit about my nightly process. Tonight’s reading was from Epictetus, who said “Don’t let the force of impression carry you away”. I immediately thought of a new friend that I had made this week who I had originally written off as artificial despite her joyful façade. As it turns out, the façade was truly her. She engaged me in questions that provoked me to think more reflectively daily and to change the framework of how I view my role when in places that are competitive and draining. If I hadn’t made assumptions about her, I could have built that friendship much earlier.

The effect of this menial reflection may not seem like much, but accumulating experiences that help me recognize the importance of stepping back and using my rational mind has shaped the choices I make. I am more open, understanding, and comfortable with the idea that I can define my own emotional well-being without attaching that to another person. Successfully executing on keeping up with this habit also encouraged me to exercise more frequently, leading me to feel stronger, happier, and healthier. Both of these activities are some of the only things that I feel I have done only for me.

When I have bad days, there is a small part of me that is angrier at myself than I used to be because I have improved my mental well-being so much. It asks why I still get like this in spite of all my changes. But when I can step away from this and view it rationally, I acknowledge that that part of me might always have a seat at the table, it does not lead the conversation.

I am still single. For the first time in a long time, I do not resent this. Instead, I spent it working on myself through self-reflection, exercise, and meditation. I spent it working two jobs, launching independent research on microfinance, being an uncle, learning to Samba in Brazil, writing. With twenty days left in my semester, I am thankful to have spent this one with stoicism. While I may not always know what paths I am to follow, I am walking firmly forward in my path, and there is a power in that. 

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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