Let’s be honest. All of us act irrationally at times. We lose our tempers, and instead of solving a problem, we make the problem worse. Because of repeated patterns of negative thinking, some of us are serving lifetime sentences locked inside prisons of disappointment and despair.
Perhaps we could take advice from a school of philosophy that dates back to the Roman Empire. From ancient history to modern times, Stoics have had to deal with the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the prison camps of Vietnam, and now, the current election of a man who might become a very unpopular president. Stoicism offers advice on how we should “deal” with adversity and how we should live our lives. Their message is we can’t control what happens to us, but what we can control is how we respond.
The Stoics address questions that apply to living today: “What do I do with my anger?” “What do I do when someone insults me?” “How do I live with success or power?”
The Roman philosopher Seneca would tell us to endure difficult situations with courage and honor. Epictetus, another Roman deep thinker, would say ignore the noise of negativity blasted by the media. Instead, work on maintaining a positive attitude by focusing on what is good in the world.
Marcus Aurelius would challenge us “to not be like that” when we are confronted by selfish or rude people.
Last month, a Stoicism conference in New York attracted the largest ever group of followers of this method of thinking. One of their major themes was that every obstacle we face is a challenge to get better.
Let’s apply Stoic ideas to a few modern problems. You are a victim of road rage. Instead of escalating the incident with obscene gestures, you pull up alongside the culprit at a red light, roll down your window and say, “You have yourself a nice day, you hear.”
Can’t do that? Then just ignore him and move on your merry way.
You know any whiners, complainers or hypochondriacs? Stoics would advise to not become one of them. Stop complaining about your job, your marriage or your health.
Look at this conversation I’ve had with someone I’ve known for a long time.
“My boss is always on my back,” he said. “They don’t pay me enough to put up with him. My wife is always nagging me. I don’t sleep well. Right now, my back is killing me. The other day I couldn’t get off the couch. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself anymore.”
Know anyone who says all or some of these things? Play the Stoic and fire back.
“Look for another job. Think about what you have that’s good in your marriage. You can’t get off the couch because you need to take better care of yourself. Turn off the TV. Eat better. Go for a walk with your wife. Play relaxing music. Start a hobby. Find something to look forward to doing when you get home from work.”
Here’s what I got in reply.
“You should have my life. Then you’d understand what I’m going through.”
So I said, “I wouldn’t have your life. I’d make up my own.”
My advice didn’t go well with this person. Now I do what works better. I choose to ignore his complaining until I can get him off the subject of himself.
Make a resolution this new year to live by these words from Seneca, who put his perspective about life in a clear light.
“Where do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable external circumstances, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”
We have been given an indeterminable sentence to live out our lives, and time is ticking off the clock. Why put a period at the end of a bad day or an unfortunate circumstance that stops you from moving forward? Insert a comma instead. Take a pause and breathe. Find something positive to do and make your next punctuation mark an exclamation point!
Happy New Year, everyone!
Rich Strack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.