Our world is a pretty crazy place. Being a living, breathing and thinking being in this world seems to confront you on an almost daily basis with situations and events that make you wonder how in the world humanity ever crawled out of their caves and advanced to the levels are at now…or gives you the impression that we may indeed have reached the pinnacle of human existence and are now sliding down the back end towards chaos.
Following anything from current events to news to politics to technology to science can lead you almost to the point of despair. Humanity seems destined to destroy itself and the planet in pursuit of profit and purposeful ignorance. More than half of the population is seeking justice and freedom from abuse based on anything from race to gender to sexuality to immigration status, while those doing the abusing claim that there is nothing for them to seek protection from. Scaremongers and liars hold almost unbreakable control over a sizeable chunk of the population, who seem incapable of processing any information that doesn’t come from their own self-selected sources. Corruption seems to run wantonly and rampantly over every area of human life and it doesn’t even seem concerned about being spotted anymore. Even things that we used to believe were unbiased, like science, now seem to be both corrupt and biased, leading to sets of the population who on one side ignore all evidence of climate change and maintain the very planet we are standing on is flat, and on the other people to ignore the usefulness of vaccines and modern medicine in favor of doing ridiculous things like not vaccinating their children and drinking raw water.
We do not live in normal times. But here is a secret from someone who trained as a historian: Humanity never lived in normal times. Humans have always been corrupt. We have always shunned and tried to eliminate those with a perspective we don’t like. There has always been willful ignorance, fear and paranoia. Open any history book and you will find ample evidence that humans have always been this way.
One of the reasons I felt drawn to the study of history is because it is the study of systems. While Engineers may study systems that were designed using the Laws of Mechanics, Electricity and the like, Historians are studying systems that were designed using the Laws of Man.
This system-centered thinking is how my brain naturally works, and I’ve never found a way to turn it off. I don’t see anything as one thing, but rather as part of a complex system. In many ways this is invaluable, because it makes me naturally work towards addressing Root Causes and fixing the system rather than fixing the symptom. But it has a downside that I have struggled with mightily in the past: Analysis Paralysis. When you have a decision to make and you are a systems thinker, it can be almost impossible to make a choice because you are constantly evaluating variables and doing cause and effect analysis on every potential decision.
When I was in University, particularly when I was in Graduate School, I struggled with Analysis Paralysis so badly that I was giving myself anxiety attacks. There were days that I could barely function, where all I could do was lay on the couch in front of the TV and try to ignore all of the decisions in front of me. Several friends recommended self-help books, which I tried but was always too snarky to take seriously. The predominant idea in them was “Think positive and send good out into the world and good will return to you!”….which seemed self-deluding at best and which I had ample evidence didn’t work in practice.
At the time I was teaching Western Civilization to a group of undergrads, and during a unit I was reminded of a philosophy I had learned about when I was an undergrad myself: Stoicism. Could the principles of this ancient philosophy still be useful? And more importantly, could they help me?
So I dove in, doing research on Stoicism and Stoic Philosophy. One of the things I found instantly appealing about it is that Stoicism, unlike the self-help movement, is not about seeing the world in a positive light or deluding oneself into being positive when life turns crappy. Stoics see and accept the world as it is, which is radically freeing. You don’t have to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to see how losing your job or getting into a car wreck or receiving a bad medical diagnosis is a good thing. You accept these things as the pile of crap that they are, and instead focus your energies on how you will move forward from this point.
The Stoic concept of Logos also appealed to my systems-oriented brain. Logos is essentially the idea that the natural universe is a system, and it operates through what could loosely be described as reason. This reason has been described throughout the centuries as Natural Law or God, but the basic idea is that there is an underlying logical framework to the universe. In Stoic thought, this helps free you from being stuck in the past, whining and moaning about why bad things happen to you. You see events as the natural outcome of some set of circumstances, some of which you may or may not know, and you simply move forward from there. But the presence of Logos in the universe also allows you to reverse engineer events to learn from them; you simply identify and follow the threads of factors back as far as you can.
Incorporating a Stoic point of view into my perspective has really helped tame fear and move me past Analysis Paralysis. It helps me accept things as they are and focus on moving forward as things stand. And, contrary to some popular critiques that Stoicism is self-centered and apathetic, it helps give me the tools to make both myself and the world better in practical ways. Now I’m not an expert in any of this by any stretch of the imagination. But in Stoic’s Corner I’ll introduce you to the concepts of Stoicism, how I apply it in modern life, and give you tips and tricks to help you apply it to your daily life.
To get you started, check out this great video introduction to Stoicism courtesy of Ted-Ed and Massimo Pigliucci: