Stoic Letter 2
What were your plans for this year? I wanted to move to Valencia, Spain. I’ve been there several times and always felt at home. I had gotten pretty far with my plans. I made sure I had no long-term commitments and was looking at properties. But like the rest of the world, I had to adjust my plans. We were all forced to participate in a classic Stoic exercise.
This is something Epictetus talked about in his philosophy school. He said, “When you are traveling by ship, you can go to the shore, enjoy the scenery, collect shells, or pick flowers. But when you are called back to the ship, you need to drop everything and hurry back, otherwise the ship may leave without you.”
That’s 2020 in a nutshell. We were somewhere enjoying the scenery, maybe picking some flowers. Some of us were already looking at other places to visit on our ship. But we were called back to the ship abruptly: “We’re going home, everybody.”
In life, we make up all kinds of plans and goals. But we must be prepared to give up everything when something unexpected happens. Let’s be honest, was this pandemic really unexpected? Why do we feel so blindsided by this crisis? It reminds me of the first time I lost someone close to me, my grandmother. She wasn’t in good health for the last years of her life. But when she passed, it hit me pretty hard. This was before I practiced Stoicism.
In recent years, I’ve adopted a different mindset about life: We must be able to give up everything when it’s called back. We have many things in life that we value; our family, friends, career, business, hobbies, car, investments, you name it. We feel like we have a right to have those relationships or objects. But in reality, we own nothing, and nothing is owed to us. We’re guests who temporarily walk this planet.
This mindset shift has helped me. I look at everything in life as borrowed from someone I personally know. Think about it. How do you act if you borrow something from a friend? You don’t get attached, but at the same time, you also take care of it. Live your life like that. Your job, house (even if you bought it), car, assets, and even relationships are not yours. Nothing is truly yours. Crazy, right? But we know on some level that this is true.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time and get close to people. That’s a misconception about Stoicism, you know. Some narrow-minded people think it’s “dangerous” to live more like the Stoics, or to focus more on the self. They don’t get it, and that’s fine. The truth is that the Stoics cared immensely about their friends and family. They dedicated most of their lives encouraging others to live well. If that’s not altruistic, I don’t know what is. When you inspire the people in your life to be happier and tranquil, all of your lives will be better.
“Does all of this mean we can’t plan or set goals? If everything is borrowed, what’s the point?” Plan all you want! Enjoy your friendships, career, and even material possessions. I’m all about that. I love to plan everything. Just don’t get attached to your plans. Always be flexible. As our friend Epictetus said, be ready when the ship departs. As you’re creating plans for the holidays and the new year, keep that in the back of your mind. If something falls through, quickly let go of your old plan, and come up with something new. Think creatively and never stop trying to make the best of it. All the best.