Who’s excited about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout? I know I am. I’m ready to put the pandemic firmly in the rearview mirror. But as the end of our long international nightmare approaches like an oncoming car, I wonder if people will learn from 2020. So maybe revisiting four Stoic tenets would help.
If Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and the other great Stoic philosophers were around in 2020, they would revel in the circumstances. 2020 has been a perfect worldwide test in Stoic philosophy. COVID has reminded us how unpredictable the world can be, how fragile life can be (and how it can end quickly, for reasons sadly beyond our control), and how beneficial a resilient and present-minded mentality can be when life deals you an awful hand.
Below are four Stoic tenets I’ve internalized from 2020 that you can apply as we celebrate the impending end of social distancing and a return to some level of long-lost normalcy.
Use The Specter Of Death To Live Life Fully With Memento Mori
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. . . .The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
The English translation of memento mori is to remember death. I’ve had two close family members teeter on the verge of death this year. I’ve also had a close family friend (and Holocaust survivor who faced more personal hardship than I could ever imagine) pass away.
Sometimes, death comes quickly and unexpectedly, like an owl swooping down from a tree to catch an unsuspecting rodent. Other times, death comes slowly, like ocean waves eroding a cliff. These are reminders that we will all die one day and to be grateful that you’re alive.
Steve Jobs used the inevitability of death as motivational fuel. Jobs once said:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Memento mori doesn’t imply you should follow your heart to live each day like a combination of Burning Man, Mardi Gras, and Carnaval. If that philosophy appeals to you, perhaps you should look into hedonism (and then read about the hedonic treadmill to bring you back to earth). Memento mori does imply you should balance your personal checkbook every day. For some, that entails creating a personal system of habits or a strict rulebook to live life on one’s terms. For others, that entails making choices in accordance with one’s values or never postponing the pursuit of meaningful things.
Few look forward to the day they die. But if you were to die right now and feel content with what you’ve done, you’ve passed the memento mori test. Memento mori is a grim and ominous phrase. But even if you prefer more positive motivational sayings, it’s still helpful to remember your clock is ticking.
Make Your Life Extraordinary With Carpe Diem
“Let us therefore set out whole-heartedly, leaving aside our many distractions and exert ourselves in this single purpose, before we realize too late the swift and unstoppable flight of time and are left behind. As each day arises, welcome it as the very best day of all, and make it your own possession. We must seize what flees.” — Seneca
Carpe diem is perhaps the most popularized Stoic saying. The English translation of carpe diem is seize the day. Everyone’s heard it, but not everyone applies it in their daily lives.
In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams inspires his English students with a short speech centered around the concept of carpe diem. Here’s a snippet of it:
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. The Latin term for that sentiment is Carpe Diem. Now who knows what that means? Carpe Diem. That’s ‘seize the day.’ Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Why does the writer use these lines? Because we are food for the worms, lads. Because believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
The finite nature of time is the primary constant of the human experience. No matter what we look like or where we come from, we all have 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. Time is the ultimate example of use-it-or-lose-it. If you hesitate, it flees, no ifs ands or buts.
I’m a homebody and an introvert, but as lockdown set in over the spring, I got restless and antsy cooped up inside all day long. I’d always dreamed of doing extended solo travel, but I’d never taken the initiative to do so. I reached my breaking point over the summer and decided to take the plunge, capitalizing on a quieter 2020 to spend three months traveling solo across the Western United States. And next month, as I note in the next section, I plan to begin a digital nomad lifestyle — first stop Costa Rica.
I’ve spent far too long passively going with the flow and letting external circumstances dictate my circumstances. No more. As Bon Jovi says, it’s my life!
Appreciate A Greater Sense Of Community And Purpose With Sympatheia
“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. All things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other — for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.” — Marcus Aurelius
The English translation of sympatheia is community feeling, or feeling for your fellow human beings.
Before COVID, I hadn’t appreciated just how interconnected I am with the rest of the world. I began feeling grateful for the various people and things that make my life a lot easier: the farmers and laborers who cultivate the food I eat, the workers who ensure our residences and communities stay safe, and the essential workers who keep people healthy and put themselves in harm’s way to help.
Beyond that, we all share one home in common: planet Earth. It is a resilient and rich planet, but also extraordinarily fragile and sensitive. We have abused it for centuries, and we take for granted the bounties it thanklessly provides us. We don’t appreciate the rocks and the trees, the birds and the bees. We are all connected to each other and to every other life form in so many ways. Humans tend to cultivate hubris and self-importance, but time has a way of reminding us we’re nothing special.
Legendary astronomer Carl Sagan can help you appreciate sympatheia through the lens of what some might call cosmic consciousness. As Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot, a scientific book inspired by the iconic image of Earth taken from six billion kilometers away:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
This year, an invisible virus stopped everything in its track and has killed millions of people. We’re a bunch of hairless, weak primates who remain quite vulnerable. Life is a privilege, not an inalienable right. And if we keep destroying the planet, the planet will remind us that we don’t own it. We only rent time on it.
Learn To Embrace What Happens To You With Amor Fati
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will — then your life will flow well.” — Epictetus
The English translation of amor fati is simple: love fate.
The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche considered amor fati the ultimate formula for human greatness. As he described: “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”
Author Robert Greene likewise suggests we “accept the fact that all events occur for a reason, and that it is within your capacity to see this reason as positive.”
In October, I found myself on YouTube one night, looking for something to watch. I scrolled toward the bottom of the homepage, uninterested in what YouTube’s freaky algorithms had cooked up for me. I found a row of three notifications from channels I had subscribed to. One was Traveling with Kristin, from Kristin Wilson. She had posted a video about Costa Rica’s imminent reopening to all travelers with practically no exceptions — no COVID test required, no quarantine, nothing. I immediately went down a rabbit hole of digital nomad content. 2020 had opened my eyes to that lifestyle, but I had never made definitive plans to ditch America and live around the world.
Now, I’m going to Costa Rica next month and have a few other digital nomad destinations in mind for 2021. I’ve never been as excited for the onset of a new year as I am for 2021 (and if you’re an aspiring digital nomad like me, Kristin just recorded a podcast episode explaining why she thinks 2021 will be the best year ever to become a digital nomad.).
Would I be making plans to head to Costa Rica in January if I hadn’t stumbled on that YouTube post back in October? What if I had simply clicked on one of the recommended posts instead of scrolling down the homepage? I don’t know. But I’m embracing how the stars aligned for me.
The corollary to amor fati is to avoid worrying about what you can’t control. The concept of fate connotes a lack of control of various factors that will affect your life. You couldn’t ask for a better example than a global pandemic; given how globalized human civilization has become, COVID-19 may be the most defining shared experience in human history.
Other worldwide events will throw a wrench in our lives. Cyberwarfare lurks behind every digital closed door. Climate change could destabilize life beyond repair. Artificial intelligence could unleash hell with no bounds. Nuclear war could happen 30 minutes from now.
And smaller events will adversely affect you at an individual level. A vengeful boss could deny you a raise or cut you loose. An investment you own — a stock, a car, a house — could lose value overnight. A hacker could compromise your digital presence or steal some hard-earned money. A significant other could dump you in an instant or leave you hanging at the altar. A parent, sibling, or child could die tomorrow.
You can’t control any of those things. But you can embrace the certainty that uncertain, unpredictable things will happen and will affect you. Hopefully, they won’t be as bad as COVID. Even if they are, you can pat yourself on the back knowing you’ve been there, done that.
At the beginning of 2020, few people knew about the existence of the novel coronavirus. Within a few short weeks, the world turned on its head and life as we know it stopped. Mental health deteriorated almost in lockstep with rising case numbers throughout the year.
2020 has given all of us reasons to despair and lose hope, but it’s also provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to test yourself and learn that you can probably handle a lot more than you give yourself credit for. With four pithy Stoic sayings, you can apply those lessons well into the future and remain prepared for any hardships life throws your way.
- Remember you will die.
- Seize the day.
- Think and feel beyond yourself.
- Love fate.
If you can do that every day, as the Allstate guy says, you’ll be in good hands.
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