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Ancient Wisdom: A Guide to Post-election Stress

You are likely to be angry, frustrated, and sad this week and over the coming months. You can allow yourself to be at the effect of your circumstances. Or choose to be the architect of your experience. If you’re human, no matter your political leanings, it’s likely that you’ll be disappointed with the election. Perhaps […]

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You are likely to be angry, frustrated, and sad this week and over the coming months. You can allow yourself to be at the effect of your circumstances. Or choose to be the architect of your experience.

If you’re human, no matter your political leanings, it’s likely that you’ll be disappointed with the election. Perhaps your preferred candidate for President loses. Or the Senate doesn’t swing the direction you wanted it to. Or a local proposition fails to win. Perhaps things are worse. Your pick for President wins, but our country continues to fracture and polarize. Maybe civil unrest breaks out on top of a resurging pandemic and an economic collapse. When our basic safety and values feel threatened, we experience frustration, anger, and sadness. These emotional reactions, while understandable, will not serve you. They will render you powerless. You will be at the effect of your circumstances, not a causal agent in your life.

Ancient philosophers, most notably the Stoics, knew this. Their writings focused almost exclusively on the question of how to live an honorable, fulfilling, and effective life even when circumstances are challenging. They lived through plagues, war, and famine that make our situation seem mild in contrast. Each of us would do well to heed the lessons from their teachings. I offer you the following four lessons as a guide to living effectively in these challenging times.

  1. Expect the worst. The Stoics engaged in a practice known as premeditatio malorum – intentionally imagining the evils and troubles that lie ahead. Seneca wrote, “Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” This doesn’t mean panicking and getting ready for the Armageddon. What it does mean, however, is having the maturity and historical perspective to prepare your mind for a future that may not align with your expectations. It involves building the capacity for equanimity and emotional control so that you can meet misfortune with the ability to respond with choice rather than to react out of fear. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t be optimistic. Admiral James Stockdale, imprisoned for over seven years in the Vietnam War, observed that the POWs who ultimately survived had the capacity both to be hopeful that they would be released and to accept the practical reality of the bleakness of their situation. Those that held only hope or only despair perished. The so-called Stockdale paradox, one that the Stoics would certainly have approved of, has particular relevance today.
  2. Embrace what is. When the future arrives, and it always does, you have two choices. You can argue with reality. Or you can accept it and, from that place of mature acceptance, work to change it. The former causes suffering. The latter creates action. As the wisdom teacher, Byron Katie often quips, “When you argue with reality, you lose – but only 100% of the time.” The Stoics went even further, suggesting that we must not merely accept our fate, but love it. This notion of amor fati was central to Nietzsche’s writings: “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.” This is tricky. Humans don’t like it when reality doesn’t align with their wants and desires. So the Stoics adopted a particularly clever distinction to help with this dilemma. They called it preferred indifference. It means that you are entitled to want peace, economic prosperity, health, etc. That’s the preferred part. But most of the time, you don’t have complete control over those things. Life throws you curveballs. The kind that you can’t really change. When misfortune hits, the type that you have to live with for a while or forever, you can either waste your life complaining to the universe. Or you can be indifferent to your desires and declare that you will live a joyous fulfilling life no matter how challenging your circumstances.
  3. Take perspective. It pays to be a student of history in at least a couple of ways. First, history reminds us that things have been a lot worse than they are today. The example that is most resonant for me is World War II. My father was born during the war in London, England. He did not see his father, who was fighting in Africa as a reconnaissance soldier in the Royal Air Force, until he was almost five years old. For four years, he lived in camps with his mother, aunts, and cousins in the countryside in Wales. There was essentially no schooling. It was unclear to all at that time whether freedom and democracy, as Western Europe had known it, would survive. Meanwhile, as I have previously written, my maternal great-uncle was killed by a bomb dropped from an Italian warplane as his medical convoy was moving across the Italian countryside. You likely have your own version of history that, if recalled, can serve as an important reminder to take perspective in these times…that things have been worse, and almost always get better. Importantly, perspective-taking does not mean complacency. And this brings me to the second benefit of studying history. Our most respected leaders have almost always embraced the first two lessons above. Gandhi, Mandela, King…not one of them wasted his time whining about his conditions. They had the capacity of mind to understand and accept the harsh realities of their times. And from that place of maturity and wisdom, they were able to act powerfully and effectuate real, lasting change. 
  4. Live virtuously. This may be the most important lesson of them all. When all is said and done, there is only truly one thing you can do. That is, live your life with virtue. This election, in many ways, is a battle for values. Virtues (unlike values), however, are considered universal. They have remained relatively constant throughout recorded history and across cultures. As I have written before, there are six so-called cardinal virtues – courage, fairness, humanity (love and kindness), temperance, wisdom, and transcendence. If nothing else, regardless of conditions, let these virtues be your guide. Ask yourself, “What would a truly virtuous person say or do in this situation?” And do that.

Here’s a bit of coaching if you will allow me. Please know that it comes from a place of love and empathy. We are all dealing with a lot. It’s ok to feel our emotions. To be angry, sad, frustrated. To want things to be better. In fact, it’s incredibly healthy and important to do so. The question is, what will you do next?” Will you kick and scream like a toddler, spending countless hours complaining to friends about the situation? Will you engage in the very acts that you condemn in others? Or will you pick yourself up, settle your mind, and role model the powerful maturity and responsibility this country needs right now? That is the real choice in this election.

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