Keep Calm and Think Like an Emperor!
It's not what happens to us, but how we think about what happens to us that will determine whether we sink or swim in challenging times.
This might sound like some terribly trendy gem of modern psycho-babble , but is actually drawn from a rich mine of ancient wisdom that originated in Ancient Greece in the millennium before Christ.
Coined by the followers of a teacher called Zeno in the fourth century BC, Stoics, with a capital 'S', in contrast to stoics of popular imagination, are both hugely positive about human potential and absolutely focused on finding what they call 'eudaimonia' or a 'good spirit of life'; we might say 'human flourishing'. This makes them ideal sources for times of crisis and the perfect guides to help us shape the next chapter of our lives. Furthermore, because Stoicism seeks a calm, measured and mindful approach to life, it is particularly attractive to those of us in our middle years.
The last great Stoic author was, surprisingly, a Roman Emperor; Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, who lived in the second century AD and wrote a collection of his thoughts on life that draw heavily on the Stoic tradition called The Meditations. Really good modern translations of this text have been produced by Gregory Hays, Robin Hard or George Long, any of which are worth getting hold of.
Marcus faced huge crises during his reign including civil and external wars in which he himself fought at the head of his armies, but he also intentionally took time to examine his life and refine his responses to events in a way that was realistic about the emotional storms of the human heart, but sought 'eudaimonia' as a way of transcending them.
So what would the great and wise Emperor say to us in 2020?
1. You have power over your mind, not external events. Realise this and you will find strength.
We have a tendency to believe that we are the victims of events and it's certainly true that events can be cruel and frightening, but as the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl pointed out, a person can survive any 'how' as long as they have a strong enough 'why'. In other words, if you have a strong set of values and a compelling sense of purpose, then you can face anything that life throws at you. This is exactly what the Stoics meant by eudaimonia.
2. When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to enjoy, to think, to love.
In our rush to play the victim of life's storms, we quickly forget the huge privilege it is to simply draw breath, to fill your lungs with air. We forget that millions of years of evolution have provided us with a brain that can do so much more than find things to complain about!
3. The only wealth you will keep forever is the wealth you've given away.
This crisis has shown us that those who live lives of the highest value are those who are sacrificially committed to the service of others. The value of hoarded possessions can be lost in an instant, but the value of time, effort and care employed in the service of another can never be swept away.
So, in this crisis, why not embrace a bit of fabulously sensible, mindful, no-nonsense Stoicism?