It is my sincere hope that the readers of this article are safe, and doing all that is in your power at this time to remain so. These are unprecedented times that are confronting us with unprecedented challenges. My own feelings during the last couple of weeks have really run the spectrum: overwhelmed, terrified, helpless—the list could go on for pages as I struggle to come to terms with the new reality. Yet even as a menagerie of emotions vie for dominance in the forefront of my mind during any given moment, there is an underlying, steadying voice in the back of this same mind that is consistently working to make itself heard. That is the voice of reason—the voice of the logos—the collective voice of the ancient Stoics.
What do I know of suffering? Countless souls before me in generations past have faced situations of greater severity than our current crisis: the Black Plague, the Holocaust, and others. I do not mean to belittle the sacrifices being made today by the heroes of this hour: doctors, nurses, first responders, and survivors whose families have been struck by the sudden loss of a loved one–far from it. Their pain and struggles are real, and every night I watch helplessly as situations all around me grow more and more dire and I ponder how best to help, then realizing that staying home—actually just that simple act of seeming inaction—is one of the ways I can best help mitigate current conditions on the ground in my own community. That reality, of being in self-imposed exile, has offered the opportunity for a great deal of reading and reflection, and a needed revisitation—a rebirth, of sorts—of the ancient philosophy I have so long valued but have quite often struggled to enact in practical ways. If we ever needed the Stoics, we need them now.
As I have mentioned in previous articles I have composed for SNS, I am a public school teacher. The pandemic has forced a massive paradigm shift in how I practice my craft. There have been moments when I was nearly in tears facing the sheer volume of challenges and massively steep learning curve involved in suddenly translating to all online classes. In person interaction, live storytelling—these are some of my greatest assets. At the same time, there have been moments of empowerment, as the forced changes also have enabled me to step out of my comfort zone and embrace some skill sets I had been hesitant if not reluctant to develop. Most of all, however, I feel for my students. The younger ones face not only fear and uncertainty, but isolation from their peers who are such a source of stability for them. I also teach Seniors, who will not now experience their own graduations and all of the rites of passage that accompany that. I will never see some of these students again. I am still conducting classes for them online, but it just isn’t the same. Personal, face to face connections carry a power no computer can harness.
Each night, I send them all a message. Usually, it is a passage from an ancient Stoic philosopher that I feel is relevant to their situation that might give them a spark of hope or inspiration. In truth, I am looking for these passages to embolden myself as well. Here is one I shared with them, and a discussion as to why:
Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains—a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosopher, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul; above all, he who possesses resources in himself, which he need only contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind—the ease that is but another word for a well ordered spirit. Avail yourself often, then, of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself (Aurelius 63).
This was drawn from Book Four, Passage Three of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It speaks of what the Stoics refer to as the “inner citadel,” a place within us to which we always have the ability to retreat and renew ourselves. In this time of self-isolation and social distancing, we have the time and opportunity to take advantage of the emperor’s advice. We have the chance to slow down, reflect, and look into the mirror of our souls. Now is the time for wholesale renewal, for putting things into their proper perspectives and valuing that which we have as opposed to desiring that which we do not. Take the time to slow down, to meditate, to breathe, to center yourselves in the walls of your “citadel,” whatever it may look like in your mind’s eye. Go there, breathe deeply, and get away from the chaos, if only for a short respite from the stresses pressing on us all. We may then (those of us fortunate enough to do so) emerge as stronger, more centered people when a post-pandemic life at last takes shape.
Working to relax and stay in the present moment, only trying to control that which is in our capacity to control, can help keep us keep the anxiety at bay. Thoughts such as “will I even be alive three months from now” are constantly working to pry their way into my conscious mind and force me to pay attention to them. If I let them, they would become overwhelming. I can only work to do everything in my power in this moment to protect myself and my family, based on what we know and are learning to do. Other dangers have always been out there, but I didn’t let them dominate my thoughts. I can only do that which is in my control; the rest I must leave to fortune.
Here is another passage I have often shared with students:
Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. ‘How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!’ By no means; say rather, ‘How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present and undismayed by the future.’ The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered. So why put the one down to misfortune, rather than the other to good fortune? (Aurelius 75).
I’ve always loved that image. The events of our lives are the waves of an incoming tide that continually smash up against us and recede, sometimes even knocking bits free, eroding us a little at a time. But we never see a wave cause an entire cliff side to simply collapse all at once; the water draws back, and the cliff still stands firm. This is what we must be now—sea cliffs that stand undaunted against the waves of fear, stress, uncertainty, loneliness, and powerlessness.
Easy to say, Marcus. We aren’t used to this. Most of us have not lived through times such as these, been asked to sacrifice in this way. We didn’t live through the scourge of the Black Plague in the mid 1300’s that killed 75 to 200 million people, 1918 influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, or the mobilization for war following Pearl Harbor and the nationwide sacrifices that were demanded of the citizenry. So many of us have already lost something: a parent, a child, a job—it’s hard to stare such losses in the face and say, “Well, I’m like the headland!” At the same time, what choice do we have? If we are still here, we’re still in this fight, and must be headlands, even if that just means sitting at home in our citadels so that those on the front lines can work to hold back the tide as best they can.
A final passage I wish to share here would be the following:
Nothing can happen to any man that nature has not fitted him to endure. Your neighbor’s experiences are no different from your own; yet he, being either less aware of what has happened or more eager to show his mettle, stands steady and undaunted. For shame, that ignorance and vanity should prove stronger than wisdom! (Aurelius 85).
One of the catch phrases we have been hearing constantly on post-pandemic television commercials is “we’re all in this together.” That is true, yet a difference between what the quote states and what we are “enduring” is in how my neighbor’s experiences may indeed differ in this case. He/she may have had the virus, or not; he/she may have lost a loved one to the virus, or not. Each of us is approaching and dealing with this crisis differently. Some of us may not live in states where “stay at home” orders have been issued. Some of us may be taking the situation less seriously than others, due to our geographic locations, the information sources we consult, or our own hubris. Many people seem to remain ignorant of the disease and what it takes to protect against it, where others operate under an “it can’t happen to me” mentality and disregard state-directed guidelines. That ignorance and vanity should prove stronger than wisdom, indeed. Of all the things we need right now, being that we are in this together, wisdom has to rank near the top of the list. This was one of the Stoic cardinal virtues, and for good reason. Heeding the wise will make all the difference when it comes to the ultimate level of suffering we will endure as a race due to this.
There are countless other passages I could discuss here, but hopefully I have illustrated that in this time of great challenge, we need to look backward to the wisdom of the ancients, as much as to look forward to the wisdom of the innovative and “out of the box” thinkers who are even now working to cure, treat, and mitigate the effects of the virus. Wherever you are, whatever your situation, remember to take time to visit your citadel, to breathe, to stand dauntless before the tide, and value the wisdom of those whose words and actions can lead us out of the darkness. May you all remain safe in these difficult times.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. Maxwell Staniforth. New York: Penguin Books, 1964.