Stoic Wisdom for Times of Chaos
When the world is scary, find comfort in the teachings of philosophers who knew how to handle a crisis
We often think of philosophy as a bookish pursuit or perhaps as the lifestyle choice of bearded old men living ascetically in caves. But Stoicism — an ancient school of philosophy famously practiced by the likes of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — is for the real world, and as we face the coronavirus pandemic, its teachings feel distinctly relevant right now.
When the future is scary and we don’t know what’s next, we can find comfort in the wisdom of those before us, those who’ve endured famine, plague, and natural disasters. Here are some ideas from Stoic philosophy that can help us in times of chaos:
Worry only about the things under your control
It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. — Epictetus
The weather, the actions of others, the way your parents treated you as a child, or viral outbreaks are things that are out of your control. Save your focus and resources for what you can influence.
Understand that you are the sole source of your emotions
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. — Marcus Aurelius
Events don’t create your emotions — it’s the stories you tell yourself about those events that determine your outlook. All conflict begins internally.
Get things done
It’s not that we have little time, but that we waste a good deal of it. — Seneca
The Stoics believed in being productive over being comfortable. Logically decide what needs to be done and get those things done. Keep your emotions in check and take care of your business. Be aware of time and avoiding wasting it.
The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately. — Seneca
The Stoics were against living in your head. We live in a time of great distractions. We’re also good at reliving the past and projecting ourselves into the future. Stoics were adamant about dealing with reality right here and right now. What have you ever accomplished by dwelling on the past or fixating on the future?
Keep your expectations reasonable
How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life. — Marcus Aurelius
The great Stoics of the past believed it was absurd to be surprised by anything. Frustration is often the result of unreasonable expectations. For example, if you made $10,000 this year, it’s unlikely that you’ll make $1 million next year.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. — Marcus Aurelius
The greatest accomplishment for a Stoic was living a virtuous life regardless of the circumstances. Stick to your values, even when life is most challenging.
The obstacle is the path
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. — Marcus Aurelius
Obstacles will always lie in the most direct path to success. They aren’t something to be avoided but are instead meant to be conquered. Whenever you reach an obstacle, you can know you’re about to make great progress.
Nothing is more honorable than a grateful heart. — Seneca
Avoid focusing on the things you lack. Instead, be happy with your blessings. To a Stoic, this is a sign of wisdom.