Stoicism is back

Stoicism is back, as if it was a fashion, like flares or ice blue eye shadow.  It is probably not surprising given the laws of motion, that for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

What is stoicism equally opposing? One suggestion might be the rise of the catastrophist and a tidal wave of anxiety in society. Chicken Littles are everywhere, and I am encountering, a little too often, people who seem to be addicted to a crisis.

Jonathan Haidt, in The Anxious Generation, wonders if we were smart in giving our children smart phones. He believes that our children were on the receiving end of a toxic combination of over protection in the real world and under protection in the virtual world. My son saw a man beheaded when he was 13. So did too many other young people. He has never forgotten that image and yet he only mentioned this to me the other day.    

I hear from others who are depressed by the news. True, it feels overwhelmingly awful, but it is designed that way. If it bleeds, it leads. That is the motto of many a news editor. And we are so constantly informed, and able to scroll. We might do well to recall the words of GK Chesterton, who noticed, even before doom scrolling, ‘It’s not the world that’s got so much worse, but the news coverage that got so much better.’ 

What else can we do besides fling the smart phones to one side and switch off the news?

Enter the Stoic philosophers who urged us to focus on the things within our control. Stoics did believe in action – they just didn’t advocate pointless or counter-productive actions. They would advise us when confronted with feelings of being overwhelmed, frightened, angry or frustrated to do something constructive.

Other people’s behaviour is usually out of our control, but our reactions are within our control. Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and poster boy for stoicism, wrote about coping with bad behaviour, many years before workplace investigations came into play.  For some years I have carted around one of his quotes about conflict at work.

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will and selfishness – all of them due to the offender’s ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness. And also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion, but a form of obstruction.

I hope this is handy. If anything, by the time you’ve finished saying it to yourself you have usually refrained from throwing someone out the window. But if that doesn’t work – there are shorter versions which also belong to the school of Stoicism. The easiest one to remember is this; Keep Calm and Carry On.  

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