When navigating difficult situations, I like to read the works of ancient philosophers who have stood the test of times. It gives me comfort, and more than that — I like knowing I’m not alone with my thoughts.
I tend to stick to the Stoics these days, who teach us to only worry about things under our control. This helps me find that sense of clarity that’s so hard to maintain in a chaotic world.
Below are 11 quotes that have helped me put things into perspective over these last few days. I hope they can offer you some advice or solace.
Simplify and Declutter
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.” ― Seneca
With lockdowns happening all around the world, many of us have had to experience a sudden change in routine. The products and activities that usually seem so vital might not be available right now… and we are discovering that we’re doing fine anyway.
Instead of looking for comfort in more possessions, we should let go of unimportant things. This is the lifestyle approach that people generally associate with the Stoics. It’s part of why so many people are drawn to this philosophy as life gets more complicated.
We should take a careful, objective look at the way we live. How many of our possessions do we really need? What happens if we change our habits and put our attention elsewhere?
Now, I don’t think it’s necessary to strive toward minimalism in home decoration or in anything else. But in my experience, it’s possible to live more simply than we tend to think, and it’s comforting to realize that we can be resilient and adapt to sparse circumstances.
If we choose to simplify the way we live, we can discover a sense of peace and certainty.
So when life feels too complicated and overwhelming, start decluttering it. Stop wasting time on the unimportant, shallow things and decide what really matters to you.
Reflect Upon Your Life
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates
Ancient Stoicism owes a lot to Socrates (to be fair, the same is true for just about any western school of philosophy). His influence is reflected in many of the Stoics’ teachings, including their views on the value of self-examination.
If you have nine minutes of free time and you like philosophy, I highly recommend this video made by the University of Edinburgh (don’t worry I will summarize it for you below the video):
Based on Socrates’s teachings on knowledge, Professor Green tells us that understanding ourselves is a valuable tool that we can hold on to when things start changing.
He tells us to imagine a professional surfer who loves her career. Why should she spend time on self-examination if she is perfectly content doing what she likes?
The answer is simple: we can’t control every part of life. A pro-surfer might be forced to find a new calling because of an injury, a change in climate, or any other factor she can’t foresee. But if she understands herself well, the change will be much easier, and she can continue to have a happy and balanced life.
Self-knowledge means we know our strengths and weaknesses, and also that we can pinpoint our own goals and values. It helps us treat ourselves (and the people around us) with kindness and understanding.
Now is a great time to try to work on understanding yourself. For example, why not take the opportunity of confinement to start a new journaling habit? You may find peace of mind by putting pen to paper.
Stop Worrying About the Things You Can’t Control (or at Least Set a Timer)
“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” — Epictetus
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius
The world is changing in unpredictable ways right now, and lots of people feel helpless in the face of it.
To get through it, it’s important to recognize that you can’t always control what happens, but you can ALWAYS control how you’ll respond.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ― Marcus Aurelius
“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca
I know that “Stop worrying about things you can’t change!” is easier said than done. But if you’re plagued with worries, I recommend asking the following questions:
- Is this something you can influence with your actions?
- Can you do something TODAY to improve your odds of success?
- What are you most afraid of and what are the chances of those fears becoming a reality?
Finding the answers will help you stay calm in the face of scary thoughts. But if you think of yourself as a chronic worrier, you can also try something called a worry period. This approach is helpful for people with chronic anxiety, but I think we can all benefit from it these days.
Instead of telling yourself to stop worrying, decide to postpone the thought.
Choose a limited period in your day where you let yourself worry (20 minutes is ideal).
Try to do this ritual at the same time and place each day. It doesn’t have to be in the mornings, but make sure you do it at least a few hours before you go to bed.
Use your worry period to think about everything that is troubling you, including the things that are outside of your control. Write your worries down, analyze them, look for ways you can increase your control over the situation.
But here’s the most important part: don’t let yourself worry during any other part of the day. If you get a thought that bothers you, leave it for later examination. You can quickly write it down, but only look at your notes when your worry period comes around.
It’s true that we suffer more in our imagination than in reality… So why not set a time limit for your imagination? Don’t let it take over your life.
Find the Beauty in Everyday Life
“Observe the movements of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.” ― Marcus Aurelius
“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” — Seneca
“Nothing is more honorable than a grateful heart.” — Seneca
Beauty probably isn’t the first thing you associate with Stoic philosophy. But there are some important insights that this philosophy has to offer about looking for the beautiful, ordinary things in life.
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by negative thoughts or by overthinking everything we do. But when we focus on the beautiful things around us, life becomes calmer.
Look at the stars, shining brighter than ever. The air is pure now, so take a moment and inhale. Observe your kids studying, the frown above their eyes while they are concentrating. Call a loved one, just to listen to their voice.
It’s a matter of fact that with time, practicing gratitude changes our brain for the better. We don’t even need to talk about what we’re grateful for, it’s enough to just feel it. (Though I recommend thanking the people you’re grateful to — they surely deserve it.)
Seneca teaches us to put aside the clutter and the useless worries that keep us up at night. Instead, we should take a moment and notice the lovely experiences and people around us. This is what I’ve been trying to do, and it has made a difference for me already.