The most notable question in times of strife is always 'what does this mean'? With recent horrendous atrocities this question is not easy to answer. I find the Stoic approach to meaning helpful in such situations. They live with 'amor fati' which translates as 'love of fate'. They believe that our lives are governed by fate, yet (and this is the crucial bit), it is on us to find the meaning. In other words everything happens for a reason and it is up to us to find that reason. As Austrian Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl eloquently puts it: 'a human should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather realize that they are the one to whom this questions is addressed'.
This may provide little initial comfort in deeply painful situations where loved ones have been lost but it does empower you to know that there is some reason, somewhere, and that whilst it may not be apparent now, good can come from it. In fact this is supported by much evidence of those that have gone through traumatic experiences such as losing loved ones, being paralysed or unfairly imprisoned, with those people often reporting happiness scores above those not afflicted by such challenges.
When bad things happen we focus our attention upon them and the scale of the issues or the hurt is magnified by doing so. An important tenet in Stoic philosophy is the ability to manipulate our perspective in order to regulate our emotions. As Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and author of the stoic text 'Meditations' is quoted: 'Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth'. In other words if we are troubled by an event then it is a problem of perspective. When we see terror attacks on our streets we can be quick to jump to panic, looking through the perspective of living in extremely dangerous times. If we view them through a different perspective, say in comparison to what life must have been like in the Blitz, we see that actually, although recent events are undoubtedly awful, we have probably never lived in safer times. Whilst this doesn't change the event, the change of perspective does change the emotions and feelings associated with it. Part of the challenge with this comes from our perspective that we are civilised beings living in a civilised society. Unfortunately this belief is both false and unhelpful. Humans have never experienced peaceful times, wars, conflict and other barbaric behaviour are an unfortunate part of our ancient history, our recent history and our present. It is harmful to compare recent events to a idealistic world of peace that has never existed.
Following on from the point above we arrive at the central and most powerful tenet of the stoic approach. This is the fundamental fact that we have the power to regulate our thoughts and subsequent emotions. To quote Marcus again: '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'. You see in life everything is neutral, as Shakespeare once said 'nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so', if we deem something to be positive or negative it is exactly that, deemed by us and not dictated by the external. When we experience negative emotion it can feel inevitable and all consuming, however we must test it, ask 'is this useful for me'? If not then reject and reframe it. In practice this may sound simple, in reality it takes disciplined practice, and I'm sure there are many of you reading this saying how is this possible for the worst situations in life. Again we turn to Frankl and the key take away from his seminal text 'Man's search for meaning' where he explains: 'everything can be taken from man but one thing, the last of human freedoms, the ability to choose ones attitude in any given set of circumstances'. Frankl used this approach to survive the Holocaust. We can use it to navigate our difficulties today.
Living through virtues
The ultimate meaning of a successful life for Stoics was being able to live a life of virtue. This is not a philosophy of debating semantics and meaning but of action. As Marcus states 'spend no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one'. You see, regardless of external circumstance, we always have the opportunity to practice virtue, whether that be patience, courage, humility or others, external circumstances should never prevent us from this. This is why I was so saddened to see the social media wishes of many calling for a violent reaction to the recent terrorist actions. If we retaliate to killing by killing others then you must see that we become the same as those that first inflicted death, we are merely killing in the name of a different belief. Violence is never solved by violence. Instead, as individuals especially, we must turn to our virtues and continue to live through them. Ask yourself does what has happened prevent me from displaying virtue? If not, then live them.
When things get taken from us we feel loss, we feel wronged and resultant grief. Again the Stoics have guidance for such scenarios. They explain that we own nothing. Everything we have, both material and non-material, has been bestowed on us by fortune, and fortune can easily take it away. We must therefore practice non-attachment, this sounds cold but is easily interpreted when we think about it in terms of being mindful. Enjoy the things we have in the moment, but do not act as if we will have them for ever. This is a key to happiness and a good life regardless of your philosophical or religious leanings. Such a mindset is obviously challenged in a modern society which values possessions, where we are constantly marketed to and made to feel lacking for what we don't have, rather than being able to celebrate what we do. There is a simple way of combating this situation, as described by one of the most notable Stoics, Epictetus with 'wealth consists not in having great possessions but in having few wants'. Which was later developed by Henry David Thoreau into 'A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone'. Ultimately we must reject material gain in favour of valuing those things that we already have and, should those things be taken from us, not mourn their loss but celebrate that we ever had them in the first place.
Thinking about death
The final principle we shall discuss here is not cheerful but is essential for making sense of our life. In our modern world death can be a taboo subject, we are uncomfortable talking about it and, as a result, we lack understanding and insight over it. The Stoics take a diametrically opposite approach, instead using 'memento mori' as a guiding principle. Essentially regularly remembering that we all must die. Be doing so we gain freedom to fully appreciate and enjoy our life, rather than be paralysed by the fear of it all ending. We can turn, once again, to Marcus to put this into a simple way of thinking. He explains that all we lose when we die is that single moment, for all the moments of our life beforehand we have already lost through the passing of time. Therefore if we are only losing a moment there is nothing to fear for we have already experienced many equal losses through our lives already. He summarises with 'death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back' and 'it is not death a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live'.
I hope this brief guide to Stoic thinking has given you a framework for starting to make sense of the turbulent world in which we find ourselves. As with every way of thinking it may not be for everyone, yet I felt compelled to share it as it provides great solace personally when reflecting on the challenges we face. Ultimately all we can do is to take control of our thoughts, live through our virtues and embrace that which life has for us, using it to find meaning for ourselves.
If you want to learn more on this area the must read books are 'The obstacle is the way' and 'Ego is the enemy' by Ryan Holiday and 'Man's search for meaning' by Victor Frankl. You may also find the Ryan Holiday TED talk powerful and the latest Tim Ferriss talk useful also.