We are born into this world hungry, vulnerable, and confused. As we go through life, we attempt to eliminate these feelings by trying to control the conditions of the world around us. We seek to accomplish and obtain things, achieve higher status, acquire wealth or fame, develop power, and so on. We live with a persisting hopefulness that in the future, we will have and control enough stuff to free ourselves of our emptiness, vulnerability, and confusion. And find some ultimate happiness and security outside of yourself. This hopeful vision of the future might sound reasonable, but perhaps it is what keeps us contained in our problems. To help us better understand and deal with our seeming unquenchable hunger for ultimate control and happiness outside ourselves, we will look to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
Stoicism is a philosophy that started in ancient Greece, and was then further popularized in ancient Rome. Stoicism is an especially unique philosophy in how potently it has withstood the test of time across thousands of years. Arguably, the teachings and wisdom of stoic Philosophy is equally, if not more relevant today than ever. Stoicism’s enduring popularity is not without good reason. The principles of stoicism can help us find calmness, presence, and resilience in a world of increasingly overt chaos, anxiety, and insatiable desire for more. In stoicism, we exist in a reality that does not care about our personal opinion of it. We cannot ask it nicely to remove the chaos, suffering, hardship, and uncertainty, nor can we will ourselves onto it with force in in order to do so. However, stoicism suggests that does not mean we are subject to be helpless victims of the world. Rather, stoicism proclaims that there are two domains of life; our external, being the things outside of our mind, which we cannot control, and the internal, our mental reactions and interpretations of the external, which we can control.
When we persist with the belief that things outside our self or things in the future will provide us with a form of ultimate happiness, we exchange every moment of our life for a moment that does not exist. We become dependent on things outside of ourselves that we cannot control and we endlessly run on a treadmill of needing more. There is nothing wrong about working towards and achieving wealth, fame, or power, but in the stoics mind, these things are merely to be enjoyed if they do work out, but not to be depended on for ones happiness. For if one is dependent on them, their happiness and peace in life are especially susceptible to being inconsistent, taken, or never achieved at all. Stoicism suggests that the sign of a truly successful person is someone who can be ok without the things he or she typically desires or depends on for comfort.
For no wealth, materialistic abundance, fame, or power has any value to a happy life, if the person who possesses them has not yet learned to live properly without them. For the stoic, the ability to find happiness in spite of what occurs around us is developed through character and perspective. We must realize that nothing is good or bad inherently, but only our judgments and interpretations of things can be good or bad. Stoicism suggests that we are but a tiny feature of the entire body of nature and everything that happens to us is a matter of relevance and necessity to everything beyond us. In this, we must strive towards an acceptance and indifference towards everything that happens and instead, focus our attention on controlling our reactions to the things that happen. With this, we can begin to free ourselves from the chaos of the world and find some form of happiness and presence within ourselves.
The practice of stoicism is not easy by any stretch, and arguably, to live a completely Stoic life is impossible. Likely no person can be without moments of desire or negative reaction to the world around them. However, stoicism gifts us with a target of wisdom to aim for. A happiness and calmness to strive for when things are at their apparent worst. In a time where chaos and anxiety run rampant across our screens. Where cultural pressures to live certain ways and achieve certain things overwhelm us 24/7. Where we spend a huge amount of time comparing ourselves to and wanting the approval of others. Our sense of happiness and peace is increasingly on the line, and it is perhaps through stoicism that we can attempt to hold on to it. Starting from birth, we seemingly run, if not sprint through life.
Racing out of every moment, unsatisfied with what life is and constantly looking to the future for what life could be if we just obtain something more or different. Our cultures overwhelm us with the reinforcement of this idea, convincing us that our duty is to achieve, buy, own, and live perfect, unaffected lives. This delusion however frenzies us with an anxiety that we are then told, by culture, we can rid ourselves of if we just achieve a few more things, make a little more money, be a little more popular, and buy a little more stuff; creating an endless feedback loop of unsatisfied hunger. If we cave into this, we surrender our life. In the stoic view, the stuff we often find ourselves chasing in life reveal to be rather petty and meaningless from a sufficient distance. We don’t have much, if any, control on what happens to us, how people see and treat us, nor what happens because of what we do, and in the big picture none of it really matters all that much.
And so, we must define our happiness not by what we own or achieve, not by how others see us, not by some bigger picture of life, but by how we think and see our self and live our own life through what we deem virtuous and relevant. Stoicism tells us we can at last, if we wish, calmly accept the conditions of our indifferent reality, and one up it with our own indifferent attitude, in return.