No matter how hard we plan our lives, we cannot escape unexpected challenges. From rain on a camping trip, to an unexpected accident, life is always full of surprises. Facing such unpredictability, it can be hard to remain strong. Some situations feel so difficult it feels like they are even testing our ability to be a good person. This is when we could all benefit from learning few basic stoic beliefs. Here are a few lessons from stoicism.
Taking Control of Your Life
Life is unpredictable and the stoics recognized this. They differentiated aspects of life that are in our control and aspects that are not. The stoic Epictetus recognized that much of what happens in our life is beyond our control. Nobody can control circumstances, affections, others’ opinions and the past. However, there are aspects of life that people can control. For example, how they exercise reason, form opinions about worth and truth, make decisions and take actions. The stoics focused on the aspects of life that people could control and most stoics believed no bad event can keep people from acting towards virtue. Antipater was a stoic philosopher who worked hard to internalize this practice. He made sure his self interest never overrode his moral.
By realizing there are aspects to life outside your control and aspects of life you can control, people can exercise agency over their lives. When bad things happen, you can realize although events are outside your control, you can control your reactions. Understanding this can lead you to make decisions towards your values. Instead of being at the whim of the situations life throws at you, you can decide to act in a specific way, taking agency over your life.
Progress Over Perfection
Continual self improvement is a core tenet of stoicism. Rather than valuing perfectionism, the stoics valued progress. You might not be perfect now but you can work towards being a better person. No matter what is going on in our lives, the stoics remind us we have deeper work going on within ourselves. As we progress in our lives, we are improving ourselves, thinking about things better, learning to anticipate trouble and choosing to act in a more virtuous way. While other philosophy might focus on arguments, stoicism focuses on looking inward. Seneca wrote about how philosophy isn't for looking at the faults in others but looking at our own faults and improving on them. Living in a way that works towards self improvement brings peace to our own life and will benefit those around us.
Finding Happiness in Virtue
Today, material things are often associated with happiness. In this view, happiness is outside our control and dependent on our circumstances. However, the stoics viewed a happy life as a life lived in pursuit of virtue. In this pursuit, we have to temper our desires to better align with the four cardinal virtues. These are temperance, courage, justice and practical wisdom. These virtues are dependent on each other. You can't have one without the others.
The stoics considered these virtues a compass for human life and what people should focus their energy on. Living by focusing on virtue requires us to revolutionize our views of happiness. Instead of viewing happiness in material things, viewing happiness in virtue allows us to take control and agency over our lives. When we place our happiness in the external world, it is beyond our control. As a result, we experience emotions that are unhelpful, along with anxiety.
Eliminating Unhelpful Emotions
The stoics considered some emotions unhelpful and a result of false beliefs that lead to destruction and negativity in our lives. Particularly, the stoics viewed hope, fear and anger as toxic. While hope might feel positive, it is the result of a lack of planning. Hope projects a positive light on uncertain future events. Similarly fear projects a negative light on uncertain future events. The stoics pointed out that hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin. The stoic teacher Hecato of Rhodes taught that when people stop being hopeful they also stop being fearful. Seneca, was a stoic known for saying people will always do better focusing on the present circumstances, where people can make a difference. Seneca also wrote about anger after his own brother exiled him in a fit of anger. According to Seneca, time and distance are the best way to deal with anger. From the stoics we can learn that not all emotions lead us towards a good path. By recognizing our feelings we can take responsibility for them and with reflection decide what to do with them.
The Unified Self-Taking Responsibility
The stoics also believed in a concept known as the "unified rational self". This is an idea that people are responsible for their own actions. While people have a tendency to blame others, the stoics believed people had to take personal responsibility for their actions. People could not place blame on others or excuse their actions with the idea that "the devil made them do it". The stoics believed people were internally unified. This goes back to the stoic idea "character is fate", from Heraclitus. The idea is that one’s character is a personal god and how we let our character behave is important. For example, if someone let's their character turn bad, they will experience more negativity.
How These Ideas Help You
Being unshakeable means facing the reality of your situation and realizing you have agency in how you react. It's trying to be a better person, taking responsibility eliminating unhelpful emotions and finding happiness in virtue. Essentially, embodying the core stoic beliefs. The stoics remind us of our agency over our lives, not to be a victim of our circumstances and to be in touch with what we value. Remembering these stoic lessons will help you truly be unshakable, no atter what life throws at you.