In Greek mythology, characters go through katabasis—or “a going down.” Something forces them to retreat, to experience a breaking point, or in some cases literally descend into the underworld. When they emerge, it’s with heightened knowledge and understanding. These moments are painful but essential. “Although to be driven back upon oneself,” Joan Didion once wrote, “is an uneasy affair at best...it seems to me now the one condition necessary.”
When you study the lives of the Stoics, you see they each went through something like that. Zeno’s shipwreck. Marcus’ early life, which was all but defined by loss. Seneca’s two exiles and the reckoning only after years of service to Nero. Musonius being exiled four times. Epictetus’s violent and depraved master twisting his leg with all his might and crippling him. The circumstances vary but the knowledge emerged with doesn’t.
Scott Hebert perfectly captured it when we interviewed him a while back. At a particularly low moment in life, Scott left his chaotic city life and went to work on a small-scale vegetable farm. With no experience farming and destructive habits to boot, Scott quickly met his breaking point, which he described felt “like fighting a hydra,” a battle with no end. “Eventually you’re struck by the monster,” he explained, “and while you’re lying there exhausted, coughing up your own blood, you reflect on the choices that brought you there,” and you find the only weapons you need.
What are those weapons? The Stoic has four: Courage. Self-Control. Justice. Wisdom. Courage to attack. Self-Control to stay focused, to know your limits. Justice to do the right thing. Wisdom to learn, to see things clearly, to know what the right thing is, what your limits are and what to attack.
Zeno used those weapons to recover from his loss. “I made a prosperous voyage,” he would later say, “when I suffered shipwreck.” Marcus, Seneca, Epictetus—they too fought back, stayed strong, did what was right, kept themselves in check. “If you find anything better” than those four virtues, Marcus said, “it must be an extraordinary thing indeed.” Fortunately, you don’t need to wait for a katabasis or a hydra to find them. As Scott said, “I didn’t have to start a farm, I just needed to look within myself.”
That’s the question for you: Are you armed and ready? Are you looking within?...TheDailyStoic.
You clean and then it gets dirty. You do the dishes and then five minutes later, the sink is full again. You made it through your inbox in the morning and by the time late afternoon strikes, you’re already digging yourself out again. Literally before you’ve even finished putting the dog’s toys away, they’re splayed out across the floor. Just as you put the finishing touches on that big project, another is dropped on your plate. You finally organize your kids' clothes and now they’ve grown out of them.
This can drive you nuts. Or you can learn to love it.
In Tibet, Buddhist monks make beautiful mandalas out of sand. They spend hours, even days, crafting these complex, geometric designs...only to wipe them clean and start over as soon as they’re finished.
Isn’t that a way we might see all the work we do? Might that be a way to go through life? It’s not about cleaning the house or finishing this or that task. It’s about the mandala—an unending, ephemeral process that we begin again and again and again. In fact, that’s what Marcus said again and again and again. The universe is nothing but change. Everything is constantly in flux. Nothing lasts. “Some things are rushing into existence, others out of it,” he reminded himself. “Some of what now exists is already gone. Change and flux constantly remake the world, just as the incessant progression of time remakes eternity.”
The dishes, the desk, the dog’s toys, your inbox, the weight you lose and gain and lose—these things are never done or clean or organized or set. No, entropy is always at work. You are at work. Your growth is at work.
So we should not feel exasperated or frustrated by it. We should love the flow of it. It’s not work we’re doing, it’s art. Finish? To be finished would mean the end of this—the end of our lives. No, we like that it’s a little bit like Groundhog’s Day. Because it means a chance to wake up and live another day.
To do it beautifully. To do it well...The Daily Soic..