‘You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength’
- Emperor Marcus Aurelius
During this pandemic, with people dying by the thousands and the feared possibility of a global recession of elephantine proportions, I could be criticised for nonchalantly blogging about the finer points of classical architecture. So, I felt it is time to write something relevant to this crisis and from the heart. I have decided to write about how I get through hard times, at least in theory, which you might find useful. I am slightly nervous about posting this, in fact I wrote the first version a while ago, posted it for a couple of days and then took it down. It did not seem the right time, but now certainly is. You can rest assured this is a one off, next month I will go back to discussing triglyphs and metopes in the normal way.
It is at stressful times like now when many people take comfort in religion, which is fine, but religion has never really worked for me. I was bought up as an evangelical Christian with the belief that if you were not a Christian in a limited and very specific way, you would literally burn in the fires of hell for all eternity after you died. Unsurprisingly I could not reconcile that with a loving god and far from giving me comfort it made me scared and unhappy. Over time I freed myself from these unpleasant thoughts and have now adopted Stoicism which for many reasons suits me well. It is a very positive philosophy and like many things that appeal to me, it is classical in origin and was even espoused by the great roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was himself a man who incidentally lived through Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD, an ancient pandemic that wiped out a third of the population.
Stoicism is also deeply ingrained into the British psyche, it’s the blitz mentality, it’s Nelson giving orders while dying at Trafalgar and now it is the nurses, like my sister Sophie, who risk their lives while cheerfully caring for the sick. This ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘no nonsense’ way of getting through life appeals to my repressed public school nature particularly at a time when people seem to get offended by anything and everything.
What I take from Stoicism is the desire to love the hand fate has dealt you, whatever it is. I therefore try not to dwell on things I can not change but instead embrace all the things I can effect with enthusiasm, energy and resourcefulness. ‘Great in theory’ you may say and I’d agree, it does not always work, but it’s an aim.
This same attitude was shared by the great stoic Epictetus who said
‘Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you’
A lot of self help books and religions focus on happiness; I feel this is a mistake. Happiness needs to be earned and it is never a permanent state. Who, apart from someone either very stupid or those oblivious to the suffering in the world around them could be happy the whole time? In evolutionary terms the complacency of happiness is dangerous, anxiety is far more useful. A while ago I was at a wedding and I heard a sermon that really stuck in my mind. The preacher made an argument which rested on the assumption that animals are happy in their natural state. ‘Has this man ever watched David Attenborough?’ I thought to myself. I am no zoologist, but from my limited knowledge, life for animals in the wild is anything but happy. Think of the zebra on an African plane, they are constantly looking around fearful of a lion appearing from nowhere and ripping them apart, limb from limb, while still alive. This would be an extremely painful death, which brings to mind the worst of medieval torture. This way of dying is a common occurrence for a zebra, and it is probably happening right now.
The zebra who wakes up in the morning and thinks…
“…..life is wonderful, how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful part of the world, blue sky…..again! Why are you lot looking around all the time, the lions won’t bother us today, don’t be so pessimistic. Relax enjoy yourself….”
Zebra do not think like this for the simple reason that all those zebras are dead. They are what is known in lion circles as ‘low lying fruit’. This is why all zebras who live to any age are constantly worried about their imminent death.
We should not feel any less sorry for the lions, they have to catch these zebras who are impossibly quick and if the lion does not catch any for a while he or she will be too weak to chase them and so die of starvation. What does the zebra and the lion get out of life? Is their life worth living or are we doing them all a favour by bringing them all to the brink of extinction? ….I would argue not.
Nietzsche asking a similar question with this theory of eternal returns. The question he posed was, would you, with all the suffering of your own life, live it all over again exactly the same. The answer must be a resounding loud YES!
It is the struggle, not happiness, which gives life its vivid and colourful intensity.
‘It’s easy for you to say that’ you may feel, and that’s true. I come from a privileged background and so I really know nothing of suffering to any great extent. But don’t take it from me, take it from Seneca who suffered more than most.
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
In situations like this, Stoics will not waste time wishing Covid-19 did not exist or worrying about the consequential recession. Instead they would focus on what they can change, which is to protect themselves and their families, help the vulnerable and use this down time productively. These hard times are an opportunity to reflect and build resistance so hopefully coming out the other side an emotionally stronger and better person who makes the most of this amazingly beautiful, joyous yet terrifying world.