As a millennial, I spend more time scrolling through Facebook than I like to admit. A lot of it is silly stuff with titles like: ‘One simple mind trick successful people use to stay positive’ or ‘From grit to great: the power of perseverance'. One thing these fluff pieces have in common (other than disappointing ellipses) is that they might just have roots in something more ancient than the Facebook algorithm: a group of long-dead philosophers known as the Stoics. The popularity of ‘positive thinking’, ‘perseverance’ and other Stoic practices in pop psychology and self-help suggests that this ancient school might still have a place in our busy and anxious world.
The first recycled Stoic practice to pop up in my feed this week was an article entitled ‘Be like Barack: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’. It quoted from a Vanity Fair interview in which Barack Obama described a trip to Cairo where he visited the Pyramids. The President told Vanity Fair that as he was walking around he thought about the people that built these beautiful monuments: they thought they were very important, they had worries, they argued and they had petty jealousies. But the only thing left amid their creations was dust and sand. The President told Vanity Fair that he often carries this perspective with him. The idea that his particular worries, bad polls or things people are saying about him don’t matter. The only relevant question is: ‘am I building something that lasts?’
Vanity Fair might not have noticed, but the President is describing the classic Stoic practice of meditating on the smallness of our place in the world. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught that remembering our relative insignificance is a helpful response to the self-centeredness and narcissism of life. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a prominent Stoic, used to say: ‘how tiny a fragment of boundless time has been appointed to each of us’. This is not intended to encourage despair, but to remind us that our petty desires and jealousies are not important. It is also intended to inspire focus to encourage us to make the best of our tiny fragment of time.
Events don’t upset you, your reactions do
The next Stoic practice hidden in my social media was in two articles entitled: ‘Three rituals that guarantee happiness…’ and ‘When life gives you lemons…’. In a folky and homespun way, they were trying to explain the Stoic lesson that it is not the world itself that upsets us, but the way we respond to it. As the Stoic Philosopher Seneca put it: ‘you have power over your mind, not outside events’. The Stoics teach that we should not waste emotional energy on things we can’t control. What upsets us is so often our beliefs about how the world should be. If we release ourselves from those beliefs and concentrate only on things we can control, we save ourselves a great deal of anguish and worry. This can be quite liberating when waiting for delayed trains or dealing with unhelpful government officials.
The final Stoic titbit to appear in my inbox was an article about Cheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. It described how we should treat our lives like a jungle gym, full of obstacles beyond our control but with many paths to the top. This is a textbook description of the Stoic ‘responsibility to act’ and could have come directly from Marcus Aurelius, who said that one should go about life as if walking into a ‘gladiatorial arena’. Most of what happens in the arena is beyond our control, but we have a responsibility to act to protect ourselves and those we love and to make our society a better place. This Stoic lesson is important because otherwise we might be tempted to treat the fact that much of the world is beyond our control as a licence to be indifferent to our surroundings. Stoicism teaches us that we have a responsibility to act on the things that are within our power to control.
When Facebook promises us ‘Genius in 10,000 hours’ it is really just telling us to practice. A central idea of Stoicism is that wisdom is neither a set of rules nor an innate ability, but a practice learned and developed over time. Training yourself not to waste emotional energy on things over which you have no control makes a huge difference to our well-being. Rejecting the inner voice that says ‘she thinks I’m stupid’ or ‘if only I worked harder’ is liberating. Imagining yourself responding to difficult situations with calm and aplomb really does help when times get tough. Unlike Facebook, Stoicism teaches us to evaluate our thoughts and find the resilience to go out into the world and live a life consistent with our values. It might even hold the secret to something more alluring: the power not to click on the clickbait.