How Can Ancient Philosophy Help Me in Difficult Times?

These are difficult times for everyone. And for the first time in a long time, that means literally “everyone.” The current pandemic has caused fear and uncertainty on an unprecedented level. Humans have suffered through plagues and pandemics before. But there are more of us today than ever before and we have greater access to information than ever—and there isn’t a lot of positive information in the press these days.

What’s the best way to deal with this chaos?

The first step is ensuring you have the proper mindset. And thankfully, we have available to us a philosophy in Stoicism that has been passed down for over 2000 years. We humans, from an evolutionary perspective, are generally good at passing on what’s useful and disposing of what isn’t. Stop and think about the value something must hold for it to be passed on and used for over 2000 years.

Stoicism was founded in Athens, Greece in the early 3rd century B.C. and was eventually adopted by the Romans during their world dominance. Some of the most powerful and wise men in history were students of stoic philosophy: Seneca, Cato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt. It’s currently used in boardrooms in Silicon Valley and locker rooms in pro sports, including Bill Belichick and Tom Brady during their dynasty with the Pats.

When you hear “Stoicism,” you probably think of someone who never smiles and is therefore unhappy. But on the contrary, the mental framework provided by Stoicism is meant to create space and structure for happiness, resilience, and success. The ancient Stoics were not unhappy people. They were generally content. And most importantly, they not only survived, but thrived during adversity. What can we learn from them?

Here are some lessons of Stoicism that may be helpful during this difficult time:

  • Focus on what you can control. Energy spent on things outside your control is energy wasted. Instead of spending hours on social media or watching the news, ask yourself: what can I do to better myself today? Who can I help today and how?
  • What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things.” – Epictetus. How should we interpret and respond to the events happening right now? We have no choice about being in the midst of a pandemic. Of course, we shouldn’t bury our heads in the collective sand and pretend that nothing’s wrong. But we do have a choice about whether to interpret this as a disabling or empowering event. And our actions flow freely from our mindset. So does the pandemic mean that you’re stuck and in survival mode, or is it an opportunity to thrive?
  • Accept that there’s constant change in the world. It’s ok to be upset about not being able to spend time with family and friends, not being able to do the fun things we were doing before the lockdown. But be careful how much time you spend commiserating. Humans have faced pandemics, war, and famine before. This isn’t the first time we’ve had to deal with change, and it won’t be the last. The sooner we accept that change is a part of life, the easier it will be to handle when it comes.
  • Mentally prepare yourself for adversity. It’s one thing to accept adversity, but can you actually take it to the next level, and prepare for it? Cato, the Roman senator, was a wealthy man. But he regularly walked around barefoot in cheaper clothing, taught himself to live on a poor man’s rations, and regularly “practiced” having very little, even though he actually had a lot. I’m not suggesting you walk around outside in your underwear. But how hard you’re hit by adversity depends on how much or little you were expecting it. Reminding yourself regularly that adversity is part of life makes it easier to bear when it comes. This may seem depressing, but it does two things 1) it makes you appreciate your current circumstances, and 2) when adversity hits, you’re more mentally prepared for it.
  • Be grateful for everything in life, the good and the bad. Why should you be grateful for the bad? Who wants a pandemic and a recession? The Stoics believed that we should practice all-inclusive gratitude because everything’s connected and events depend on each other. Everything that’s happened to you makes you who you are today and today’s events in their totality, good and bad, will shape who you become tomorrow. Maybe we come out of this with more compassion and generosity.

If you want to dig deeper on Stoicism, check out “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” Also, “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday contains the essential wisdom broken up into short daily lessons

The question we should all be asking ourselves is not, “How do I survive?” Of course, survival is the priority, and you should do everything you can to ensure the safety of yourself and your family. But what about flipping this and asking, “How can I come out of this stronger?”

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