What Does it Mean to Be Stoic?

(And Why it’s Time to Put On Your Grown-up Pants)

Even though I tend to be a glass half full kind of person, I really detest the sentiment of pretence when it comes to positive thinking.

Particularly when it’s dressed up as spirituality.

To me it just seems like denial of reality. A conscious refusal to honour, confront and allow feelings of frustration, anger, fear and anxiety as if those emotions are somehow tainted.

It’s okay to feel all of these things. It’s understandable. Especially at this moment in time.

What we need to work on perhaps, is being a bit more comfortable with uncomfortable emotions instead of pushing them down until maybe one day, they potentially get the better of us.

For 18 months or so, humanity has been at the mercy of something bigger than we are. Of course we are desperate to see the finish line.

Our planning and organising minds have a hard time coping with uncertainty. It’s comforting to believe we can control outcomes. In our current situation, it’s not abnormal to feel agitated or uneasy.

Modern Humans Are Used to Predictability

Perhaps what is a bit abnormal though, is the kind of predictability that most of us in the modern world have become used to. When something untoward happens, it’s a shock. We can’t quite get our head around it. This was not part of the plan! It’s not in the diary! Wind back the clock immediately!

If you have teenagers like I do, then you’ll  know how hard this pandemic has been on them.

My son is in Year 12 and has had some terrible moments. It’s upsetting and it’s been hard to know what to do or to say sometime.

We cannot fix it. And in a way, that’s part of the problem; assuming everything broken can and will be fixed at some point, on some date, in the imaginary future.

He was ready to give up. To throw 13 years of school away, because he felt that he could not deal anymore with the uncertainty and the unfairness of it all. The frustration of having to throw his 2021 plans out of the window and surrender a little bit.

A Lot of the Time Life IS Unfair

Anyway, something shifted the other night while we were having dinner. We were talking about some of the life-changing tragedies people have gone through, specifically, a good family friend of ours who lost her son just before his first birthday some years back.

My son knows the friend quite well, but didn’t quite remember the significance of the event. He was interested and wanted to talk about it.

I mentioned that it was not really surprising he wasn’t aware of the details because, aside from the fact, he was quite young at the time, it is easy to forget what this friend has been through. This is because the whole family (whom he loves and respects) has always had a very stoic attitude to life.

They are not the kind of people to let a horrible experience define them and nor would they wear it as a badge of honour. (And we all know that kind of grief isn’t going anywhere).

Stoic People Show Up!

But no matter what has happened to whom, unless it was a physical impossibility, without fail, they wake up every morning, pull on their grown-up pants and get on with it. 

Now these are the kind of people / friends in my life that I find inspirational and I learn something from every day.

From here, our table talk moved on to the history of stoicism and how that whole philosophy might offer some useful resources right now in helping us all manage our current expectations and experiences.

The stoics felt that everything we face in life presented us with an opportunity to respond with virtue. They believed there were four virtues to be considered: wisdom, justice, courage and moderation.

Look, maybe it was an aha moment, maybe it would have happened anyway, or maybe it was the fact that in desperation, I offered my son a juicy incentive. Perhaps it was all of these things combined, but first thing, the very next morning, after weeks of being curled up in his room with his iPad, he finally logged into a Zoom class meeting.

Shortly after that, he went for a surf, came home studied some more and then went out for a bike ride.

That weekend, he played a game of online poker with all this school friends and I heard him laughing hysterically for the first time in weeks. There were more surfs, more bike rides and some reconnections with local friends.

Sometimes There is No Bright Side And That’s All

The point to be made here is that generally, when life throws us the odd lemon, we have a choice as to how we respond. We can consider whether we believe the glass is half-empty or half-full. But there is no bright side to losing a child, finding out you are seriously ill, having no money to buy food or pay the mortgage, or the fact that you might never see an elderly parent on the other side of the world ever again.

These things are completely awful, yes.

And because not everything is fixable, we might need to resolve to become sort of awkward frenemies with the gnawing, uncomfortable feelings instead. To sit with them, to allow them and to observe our constant resistance, yearning and hoping.

To accept what is and let go of struggling against it

Again, this won’t fix a problem that isn’t necessarily fixable, but it might help us build the strength and fortitude needed to endure during life’s tough times.

For now at least, my son has picked up his grown-up pants from his floor-drobe, cancelled his pity party and made the decision to show up.

I thank my stoic friends for their subtle influence in this outcome. It serves as a great reminder to pick your gurus wisely.