This has not been fun. It’s been brutal. But it has been, at least, an exercise in that question that the Stoic aficionado Tim Ferriss is a fan of: What would less look like?
Less dinners out.
Less time with friends.
Some of that has been easier to bear than others. Some of it has been sad and lonely, other parts of it have been downright liberating. But the thing about less—why we ask Marcus Aurelius’ version of the question: Is this essential?—is that it also reveal what more looks like.
Because as tough as the last few months have been, it’s also meant:
More sunsets from the back porch.
More dinners at home.
More appreciation for the people and things that matter.
More understanding of the urgency of memento mori.
That’s what Marcus was saying, what Tim was trying to get us to see. When we do less, we get a double benefit. We cut out what is inessential and we do what is essential much, much better.
There are not a lot of redeeming qualities to a pandemic, but we should at least take this lesson from it. We are being taught what less looks like. We are being taught that less can actually be more.-The Daily Stoic
It’s been a year, as unbelievable as that is to write. Time has dragged. It has flown by. On March 14, 2020, almost exactly one year ago, we sent out an email about the rising threat of COVID-19 and its relation to the timeless dictum of Stoicism: We weren’t going to be able to control what had happened, but we could control how we responded.
So, how did you do?
Twelve months. Countless obstacles. Countless difficulties. Countless dilemmas and stresses. But also: countless opportunities to practice this philosophy, to be civic and justice-minded. Marcus Aurelius, writing during the Antonine Plague, talked about how a pandemic could take your life… as well as destroy your character. Well, how did yours do? Did you fall prey to conspiracy theories? Were you safe, or stupid? Did you get addicted to the news and outrage, or did you focus and develop new habits? Did you take your frustrations out on your family? Did you lose your compassion for others, or did it grow?
Remember, a core practice of Stoicism is journaling. But what is journaling but the process of self-reflection? It’s putting you and your actions up for review. Take a minute to do that today. Or more than a minute. And don’t lie to yourself.
Look at your successes and be proud of them—that you’re still standing is no small feat. Be grateful for that. Sadly, far too many of our fellow humans did not make it. (On March 14, just 65 Americans had died of COVID-19. By March 2021, over 500,000 had perished.) Others lost jobs or opportunities or experiences they could not get back. We were all affected, but take a second to look at where you were lucky, what you have to be grateful for, what skillful maneuvering and resiliency allowed you to endure and adapt. But don’t shy away from looking at your failures, too. Where did you waste time and energy? Where did you fall short? What mistakes did you make? What bad habits did you pick up? Were you part of the problem rather than the solution?
Now, let us learn from these successes and failures, vices and virtues, so that next time—and there is always a next time—we can be better. Better citizens, better people, better Stoics. It’s been one hell of a year. But if we don’t find meaning from this suffering, if we don’t improve because of it—individually and collectively—then we have added harm on top of the misfortunate. And that is inexcusable...The Daily Stoic
It’s impossible to overstate the terror and uncertainty that swarmed Marcus’ life. Just while writing Meditations, Rome fought a war against the Parthians that lasted five years. The River Tiber had one of the worst floods in history, destroying homes and livestock, and delivering a famine. Eventually victorious against the Parthians, celebrations were short-lived because returning soldiers brought home a deadly contagion, which became known as the Antonine Plague. Marcus would lose eight children, his co-emperor, most of the Praetorian Guard, his top commander, his most trusted colleague Furius Victorinus—all to the plague. Fate, seemingly testing Marcus with one catastrophe after the next, wasn’t done yet. With Rome crippled by famine and plague, hostile tribes jumped on the opportunity to attack. Rome now faced the duel evils of war and plague.
“All were aware that Rome faced a grave crisis,” biographer Frank McLynn writes, “and the emperor had to tack between stressing the urgency of the situation and not affecting the morale of Romans by anything that smacked of panic.” The first step was obvious: he needed help—more troops, medical experts, leaders. Less obvious was how he’d afford it. Rome’s economy was primitive and brittle before wars and plagues broke out. “Leading by example,” McLynn continues, Marcus “conducted a two-month sale of imperial effects and possessions, putting under the hammer not just sumptuous furniture from the imperial apartments, gold goblets, silver flagons, crystals and chandeliers, but also his wife’s silken, gold-embroidered robes and her jewels.”
We tell this story in The Boy Who Would Be King, too—because it’s such a simple beautiful lesson, worth considering whatever your age. Even in the worst times, we have more than we need; even in the worst times, we can find some way to be generous to others.
The Four Virtues obligate us to do this. It takes courage to give, when we have little. It takes discipline to do without. It takes wisdom to know who and how to help. It is justice to share and to help. That’s what Marcus was doing: Facing the problem, not running from it. Valuing his responsibilities, not his material possessions. Prioritizing his people’s wellbeing, not his own. Finding solutions, not excuses.
What can you do today? Who can you help? What good can you do for the common good? And how can you teach your kids, your employees, your neighbors, to do the same?..The Daily Stoic
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