“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
We find ourselves in trying times. It is difficult to not let the global sense of panic and dread seep into my bones as I read the news or look at the latest COVID-19 statistics. I’m saddened by what this global pandemic will mean in terms of lives lost, families torn apart, and the long-term impact of a global economic downturn that is predicted to be worse than the global financial crisis of 2008. We have no idea how long this pandemic will continue or where it will end, but there seems to be no point in wallowing in all that is broken and that could go wrong.
I’m remined of a book on Stoic principles I read last year, entitled A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. I found that a refresher of some of the principles discussed in The Guide to a Good Life can really serve in figuring out the best way to be during these unprecedented times.
The core aim of Stoicism as explained by the author William Braxton Irvine, is tranquility; i.e. not to allow one’s inner peace to be disrupted by outside events. I will discuss some of the most insightful ideas shared in this book, that I have found helpful in restoring my own inner peace.
Misconceptions about Stoicism
Note that I’m not advocating for Stoicism as a belief system. There are many misconceptions about Stoicism that Irvine addresses eloquently in his book and that I will not spend time discussing here. In short, Stoicism is not a religion and it doesn’t mean being unattached or emotionally detached from everything. The Stoics also experienced intense emotions, but they lived according to a set of principles that ensured that they chose their response to each situation. In other words, they retained personal power over their choices and did not allow external influences to rob them of their inner peace and tranquility.
We’ve all heard of positive affirmations, but what I found most interesting from The Guide to a Good Life, is the suggestion of practicing negative visualisation. This involves imagining what life would be like without the people or things you love in an attempt to help you appreciate what you have more. We tend to take the people closest to us for granted and we tend to ignore the simple yet profound things in our life that actually make our lives worth living – things like sunshine or rain or even just being able to greet your neighbour without fear of being infected by a global virus.
To be clear, Irvine is not advocating for wallowing in self-pity or staying stuck in your worst-case scenarios. What he is recommending, is that you spend some time each day in negative visualisation to help you be more present to your life and pay attention to your life as it is unfolding. If practiced correctly; focused on the things we tend to take for granted, It helps you appreciate the good things in your life. By spending some time thinking about all the simple things in your life that actually make your life beautiful or by learning to appreciate the people in our lives that sometimes annoy us, but that we know we cannot really live without, you learn to love the things you have in your life instead of constantly complaining about or pining for the things you lack.
With self-isolation becoming the norm and more and more cities going into lockdown and imposing curfews, we are now realising how much we took for granted – being able to shake someone’s hand, full shelves in the grocery stores, conversations with neighbours, crowded theatres, a Friday night out, a routine check-up, the school rush in the morning or having to go to work on a Monday, coffee with a friend, a roaring stadium full of ecstatic fans… These things are now out of reach for most of us. Applying Stoicism to this realisation means that we note what else we are taking for granted right now instead of being upset about not having these things. There might be small gifts in your current situation that you are taking for granted, because you are so focused on what’s missing or what you’ve lost, or you are being consumed by fear and worry.
So, take a few minutes to notice what is beautiful about your current situation. If you are working from home and self-isolating at the moment, you have the benefit of a calmer morning routine with no morning school rush. You could still get up early and use the time to have breakfast with your family and connect with the people that we often tend to take for granted the most. You could have deep conversations with your partner or children; really connecting with them and learning something new about them.
You might have more time for reading or playing with your kids; for cooking nutritious meals at home; taking a long, relaxing bath, watching a family movie together, spending time in your garden or working on a craft of hobby you’ve neglected for a while. You might have more time to drink your tea slowly and stare out of the window; to journal or reflect on your values and aspirations. You might have time for video calls with friends and family that you don’t get time to visit with. Being physically isolated from others doesn’t have to mean being socially isolated from those we love. It might actually be an opportunity to reconnect and rebuild relationships.
The important thing is to make the time to identify the things you are taking for granted and remind yourself how much you’ve longed for this time to spend reading or take up that hobby or talk to that friend you promise to call, but keep putting off, because you are simply too busy. If you spend five minutes every day identifying the things that you will miss once this pandemic is over and you have to return to your normal routine, it could set you on the path to enjoying those things now, while you have the time and no excuses not to…
Focus on what you can control
Another important Stoic principle is to focus on what you have control over. I call this the CIA strategy. “C” represents all the things you have direct control over. Things that you can control include your thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions. You control how you respond, what you say and what you do during these challenging times. You might actually have more control over your schedule right now than you usually do. Use it to your advantage to honour your values. Go for that walk. Do some yoga. Read that book. Learn something new. Spend some time with your family. Bake that cake. Write that letter.
If there are things that you are currently doing, thinking or feeling that are not serving you, then change it. The best part about the things you control directly, is that you can change what’s not working.
The “I” in the CIA strategy represents the things that you have indirect control over. With things that you have indirect control over, you can still influence the outcome. You cannot control other people or make them do what you want them to do, but you can influence them either positively or negatively by what you say and do. How you show up to each situation and who you are being, can influence how others react and respond. And of course, we all know deep down that people don’t like being told what to do. Do you like being told what to do? So, what is your best course of action? Set an example. The old cliché “be the change you want to see in the world” has a lot of truth to it. The best way to influence those around us, is to be the change we want to see. So, if you want people to be more kind, considerate, compassionate or responsible, then you start by being all those things yourself.
The “A” in the CIA strategy represents the things we have absolutely no control over. This category usually includes things like the weather, the economy, crime or corruption etc. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, you probably have very little control over the death rate and the spread of the virus. But you do have control and influence over what you do and how much you contribute to the problem or become part of the solution. The lesson about the things we have no control over, is to accept an adapt as best we can. This means that you stop obsessing about the numbers and about how no-one can do anything about it. And you identify the things that you can do to be part of the solution. You just have to focus your energy on your circle of control instead of your circle of concern.
The hidden joy in abstinence
A core practice of Stoicism is to abstain from things that we enjoy or indulge in. The aim is to learn how to appreciate our joys, vices and indulgences more when we do get to enjoy them. Self-control and self-discipline are important to a good life. Learning to also restrain ourselves and sometimes go without, makes us more grateful for what we have and helps us rediscover the joy of something. For example, not eating cake every day, means we enjoy that slice of cake so much more when we do get to eat it once in while. Enjoying simple meals also allows us to savour tastes and flavours without becoming too accustomed to luxury and then being unable to derive joy from simple things. In this time of social isolation, we are probably learning to appreciate small things like going out for coffee or a meal, or hanging out with friends or attending a concert so much more, because we don’t get to enjoy them right now. Use this time to reflect on what you enjoy most about these things you are not allowed to partake in right now, and keep a list of things that you will appreciate about each once you get to do them again.
Stoics advocate the practice of minimalism. They believe that luxury builds weak character. They believe that if you can learn how to break free from consumerism and enjoy what you have whilst learning to get by on less; you will experience more joy in your life. Practicing this in unison with negative visualisation, helps you find more joy in the simple things in your life, because you appreciate what you have so much more. You really live with deep gratitude every day and not just in times of crisis.
Stoics often put themselves in situations of discomfort to teach themselves to appreciate their comforts and luxuries more. For example, they might leave the house without a warm jacket on a cold day, so that they can appreciate the warmth of their home more when they get home or appreciate the comfort and softness of a warm jersey or blanket so much more. They would abstain from their favourite foods for a period of time, so that they enjoy it so much more the next time they do get to eat it. Your current circumstances might be forcing you to abstain from things you enjoy or love or might even have taken for granted. Notice the gift in that. Next time you get to do it, it will bring you the same level of joy you got from engaging in that activity the very first time… This is how we stop ourselves from becoming complacent and how we teach ourselves gratitude for the things that truly bring us joy in life.
Fellowship and the purpose of life
The Stoics believed that “Fellowship is the purpose of being“. They reasoned that we are not meant to be alone. We are social animals. Like bees, we die when we are unable to connect with others. We cannot exist in isolation. Thus, strong relationships are critical to a good life. Most of us might be awakening to that realisation right now. Social isolation is teaching us how much we need other people.
Part of this idea around our fellowship of being, is the postulation that we are called to serve others and that the most noble life, is a life lived in service of others. In times of a global pandemic, our heroes become those people who work on the front lines of the crisis – doctors, nurses and others providing critical services. Some of these people are putting their own wellbeing at risk to serve their communities in this time of crisis. We might not all be in a position to do that, but we can all find ways to serve others. Check in with a vulnerable neighbour and offer to get them groceries. Phone your grandparents and find out how they are doing. Spend time with your kids, connecting with them and limit the amount of distress that is being transferred to them. All these actions are of service in some way. You don’t have to save millions, but you can certainly find a way to make a difference to one person. Ask yourself, who can I serve today? And then experience the joy of being of significance in this way. There are few things as fulfilling.
As a coach, I’m called to be with people during their most challenging and difficult times. I am witness to their pain and suffering and I can be of service in the simplest of ways, by simply creating space for another person. Holding space where there is no judgement where they can express their fears and concerns or where they have time to think and process, means they re-engage their own personal power and can be of service to others in their environment.
The value of a sense of humour
Of course, being in close proximity to your family members, might drive you up the wall sometimes. We all have the potential to become frustrated and annoyed if we don’t have time and space for ourselves. How does Irvine suggest we deal with the inevitable frustrations of interacting with others? He suggests using humour to your advantage. Break the tension in a serious argument by refocusing on what is funny about the situation. Learn not to take things personally. If we are overly sensitive, we are quick to anger. If we can learn how to use humour to minimise the impact of our anger, we will find we are able to diffuse most conflict situations before they get out of control.
This can sound like something that is easier said than done. Especially, in a time when people are overly sensitive, and we are so easily offended. Spend some time figuring out what your biggest triggers are and why. Then ask yourself what you gain from getting angry or offended. How can you apply the CIA strategy to get a better result?
The path to happiness
The Stoics believed that the only sure path to happiness is not living a life of self-indulgence but rather a life of self-discipline. The traditional approach to getting what you want is to make a list of what you want, devise a plan on how you are going to obtain it and then implement the plan. However, the Stoics advise that without a clear philosophy of life that helps us clarify what we value most, we might end up chasing empty desires and never attaining any fulfillment or joy, because every desire fulfilled will be replaced by a new desire in an endless loop. For this reason, it’s advisable that you figure out what matters most to you and that you formulate a personal philosophy of life. Learn to love your life and what you have already. It doesn’t mean you become passive and complacent. But it does mean that you spend your time wisely only pursuing those things that align with your ultimate goal or most important values in life and that you practice the self-discipline of negative visualisation, occasional abstinence, and daily gratitude.
In these trying times, take some time to reflect on what matters most to you and who you want to become as a result of the challenges you have to face right now. And when this crisis ends, may we find that we have become more like the people we want to be, we are called to be, we hope to be, and may we then stay that way – better for each other because of the worst.
- Irvine, W. B. (2009). A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.