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Last year Marcus Aurelius was really having a moment. Some 2,000 years since his death and reign as Roman emperor, the Stoic philosopher was everywhere, including a holiday I went on with friends on which two of them brought Ryan Holiday’s 2016 book The Daily Stoic, which brings the ancient wisdom to modern everyday life. “I read it every day,” one said when I questioned her about it. “It’s the sort of tough love I’ve needed since my break-up.” A few weeks later, I met someone who told me that they started every day by writing in Holiday’s Daily Stoic Journal.
One of the most quoted lines from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations has to be: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy which developed later in the Roman Empire and, in a nutshell, advocates for enduring pain or hardship without becoming overly emotional or complaining about it. The Stoics believed that emotions like fear or envy and even the impassioned attachments of sexual attraction and romantic love were rooted in “false judgements”. So base were these human follies, said the Stoics, that the sage (someone who had reached moral and intellectual perfection) would not bother with them, let alone experience them: no pleasure, no pain.
Thirty-three-year-old Jess* (who didn’t want her real name to be used), who is currently single, explains that she has turned to Holiday’s books about Stoicism during the coronavirus pandemic in particular because drawing on the philosophy has helped her to be “less hot headed”.
“What I mainly find helpful,” she explains, “is the Stoic idea of letting go of fear. Reading about them has taught me to examine my fears and anxieties, to find out why I’m feeling that way and then facing up to it.” She gives an example of a quote that has particularly spoken to her from the Roman Stoic Seneca: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”
Like my friend on holiday, what Jess is trying to achieve is, as she puts it, “resilience”. She feels that the Stoic message of perseverance has helped her in her quest to become more resilient while trying to navigate economic uncertainty as a single woman who is also trying to date and potentially find a partner in the middle of a once-in-a-generation public health crisis.
Resilience seems to have become the most sought-after personality trait as we face the havoc wrought by COVID-19 so it’s no wonder that some people are turning to the ideas of Stoicism, particularly when they are packaged up so neatly by Holiday in his books.
Stoicism is about figuring out how to roll with the punches and be the best you can – do the right thing – despite what’s happening around us.
Similarly, 33-year-old former social media executive Amy says she has “definitely felt the need to learn resilience this year”. She and her partner were made redundant during and after the first lockdown respectively. On top of that, they lost all the money they’d spent on their wedding which had to be cancelled and she experienced her “first arthritis flare-up in three years”.
“I feel like under normal circumstances I’d be allowed a total meltdown over just one of those things,” Amy explains, “but because of everything that’s going on in the world I definitely feel a self-imposed pressure to be okay about it all – to get on with it. I guess this is Stoicism!”
Holiday, who is in his early 30s too, released a new companion book to The Daily Stoic shortly before lockdown 2.0 in 2020, Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius. His story is interesting in and of itself. In a former life, he was the public relations guy who steered American Apparel through the controversy that surrounded its founder, Dov Charney. Holiday has written about that too, in a book called Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.
It’s worth noting that the Stoics were, by and large, wealthy men. Seneca, for instance, was so rich that loans he gave to the Roman Empire’s British colony were basically the entirety of the British economy at that time. That doesn’t necessarily take away from their writings but we can’t ignore the fact that what they produced is basically the ancient equivalent of the British stiff upper lip which originated in the homes of wealthy landed elites. There has to be space for us (particularly young women who are more likely to have lost their job or be in low paid work on the coronavirus front line in hospitals or nurseries) to be vulnerable, to feel the emotions which are being provoked by the fact that so many of our lives are being turned inside out.
I ask Holiday whether he has deliberately packaged Stoicism up as a commercially viable guide to living through increasingly turbulent times. He rebuffs the suggestion. “I don’t think I ‘package’ it as a guide to living – that’s what it is,” he explains. “It’s what it has been for 2,000 years. Seneca said the only reason to study philosophy is to figure out how to have a happy and good life. He said philosophy offers counsel and guidance. I know I need that in my life and it’s been humbling to see I’m not alone in that.”
If people see resilience as owning a ‘super shield’ which stops them from experiencing unhappiness or despair then they may ‘beat themselves up’ because it feeds into an incorrect notion of being ‘weak’.
Dr Nihara Krause
Holiday also makes the point that the Stoics developed their philosophy against a backdrop of “the ups and downs of the ancient world: tyrants, exiles, wars, loss.” He notes that “Marcus Aurelius was writing and ruling during the Antonine Plague. It shouldn’t surprise us that [his writing] has got some relevance today. Stoicism is about figuring out how to roll with the punches and be the best you can – do the right thing – despite what’s happening around us. It’s a good thing people are turning to that right now.”
We have all, in our own ways, lived through a lot over the course of the last year, personally, professionally and politically. In the last week alone, far-right Trump supporters broke into Capitol Hill in Washington and people died as live news cameras were rolling, the UK entered its third lockdown and Britain finally left the European Union. Add to that the strain on all of our relationships – with friends, family and significant others – and it’s understandable that anyone would be struggling and searching for support, calm and clarity.
Stoicism seems to be a source of all that for some people. But is there a danger that we might add the pressure to be stoic – to be resilient and persevering – to the other external pressures we face? When we spoke, Jess admitted to me that she has begun to see her emotions as “a sign of weakness”, which can’t be healthy. There has to be a balance between allowing our emotions to rule our lives and accepting that they are a necessary part of the human experience.
Dr Nihara Krause is a consultant clinical psychologist and lecturer in adolescent and adult mental health. She explains that there is always a danger when psychological traits like resilience or ideas like Stoicism become buzzwords. “The problem with ‘buzzwords’ is that they can be misinterpreted and misunderstood,” she says. “If people see resilience as owning a ‘super shield’ which stops them from experiencing unhappiness or despair then they may ‘beat themselves up’ because it feeds into an incorrect notion of being ‘weak’.”
Dr Krause adds: “If people are able to understand the true definition of the concept and see it as a tool kit of thoughts, actions and emotions they can acquire and build on as well as learn that sometimes no matter what tools you have, things go wrong and that the challenge is to find a way through, they don’t ever have to see not being resilient as something to beat themselves up [about].”
So how can we learn from the Stoics and foster resilience while treating some of their ideas with a healthy dose of scepticism? “Adaptation is the key word here and in modern society when describing resilience, the concept is used to broadly describe the ability to respond flexibly and effectively through adjusting to challenges that pose a threat,” Dr Krause says when I put this to her.
She adds that in her practice she tends to use the phrase “bounce not break”. “I say this when teaching resilience skills; it has now been adopted by the teenage mental health charity I founded, stem4. Some people may confuse resilience with being ‘tough’, ‘stiff upper lip’ or surviving and while these may provide a facade of strength, they are not durable and don’t help an individual to adapt. True resilience is about learning to thrive.”
So read about the Stoics. Learn from them. Seneca’s On The Shortness Of Life is particularly great if you want to stop sweating the small stuff. As he puts it: “We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.” But remember that you can’t be stoic all the time. Hard objects are actually very brittle – they shatter when they hit the ground – so there is little to be gained from shutting down your emotions. It’s okay to feel emotional when huge life changes – a death, a break-up, a job loss – occur.
Beyond that, Dr Krause makes an important point about taking on too much ourselves when the going gets tough. “Resilience doesn’t just belong to one person,” she reflects, “it will also depend on the interaction someone has with the other systems around them – for example, family, friends, educational organisation or, even, country they live in. How resilient you can be depends on how challenging those relationships are so it’s important to also create resilient and supporting systems.”
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