When travelling, if you’re lucky, you get to make some lasting friendships, wherever you both end up on the planet. You don’t know it at the time, but they may come to have a profound impact on your life. Joe was one of those people.
I stumbled into the hostel, quickly made friends with him and his mates and stuck around with them for a good few weeks. We watched lightning storms from the roof, played many games of ‘President’, lounged by the pool and shared bbq food and many beers together. Joe, however, was one of the first who sadly had to leave. That was January 2019 and we’re still in touch to this day.
I followed his journey ski resort-hopping across the globe and actually managed to snag him for a beer that rare time he was in the same country as me. We went for a couple of pints and a stroll around Soho after a lovely lunch about a year ago. It was just before my birthday and as a gift, he gave me a book that – in the least dramatic way possible – changed my outlook on life, like a lot.
Now personally, I think giving someone a book (that you’ve read yourself) is one of the most precious things you can give. It’s not a shiny polished version that’s been perfectly packaged and mechanically placed on your doorstep, it’s a book that’s been read from start to finish, pages dog-eared, marked with various wrinkles, tea stains; someone’s literal imprint that’s travelled with them literally and spiritually. But it’s not just the physicality of the book that matters but the subject content, too. Thinking of a particular person who would also enjoy a certain book takes a lot of thought and consideration. But I digress. My point is, not only did I love the act of receiving someone else’s book but what was in it. I can safely say that it’s been read back to front multiple times and (I’m sorryyyy) highlighted and scribbled on and, essentially, worshipped the fuck out of. I sincerely apologise for defacing the sanctity of the written word, but it was only for good reasons!
The book he gave me was How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci.
For those who aren’t familiar, Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that – to boil it down into a short sentence – focuses on living life in accepting it for truly what it is. This comprises building a stoic (ahhh that’s where it comes from) mental attitude when going through hardships, learning to release things out of your control and ultimately living a contented life by accepting things just the way they are. Way easier said than done, but the premise is that while we can try and manipulate things to happen a certain way, we cannot control them. And we humans waste so much time trying to do this and come up empty most of the time.
While there are a fair good stereotypes about the Stoics, Stoicism really is just, as Pigliucci so humbly puts it…:
“about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is also about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on our former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.”Massimo Pigliucci, How to Be a Stoic, ‘The Unstraightforward Path’, pp. 1-16 (p. 2/3).
So it’s not just about letting go of things we can’t control but it’s also about being a decent human, asking yourself whether your choices align with your morals. Now I’ll be honest, that takes some work. But that angle I will save for another day.
Firstly, after reading this book, I really felt my perspective shift. It was almost as if I’d been flexing my ‘control’ muscle for so long, but just let it go, letting it wobble around in its unclenched glory. Whenever something happened that would usually piss me off – something as trivial as a reckless cyclist on the canal or a rude person in a restaurant – it would just wash over me. I wouldn’t even think to let myself get annoyed. Then when worse things happened, like my poor old dog Ruby dying (as heartbreaking as that was), I really think I processed that much more healthily/successfully than I would have done before. I accepted that there was nothing I could do to ease her suffering or stop her from dying, so I let her go in peace. I realised it would cost me more emotional pain to focus on the uncontrollable than the reality of what had actually happened.
I also detached from other things like external validation, opinions of others, anxieties about particular outcomes and so on. All of it (and more) was so far beyond my reach and viewing it stoically I saw that so much is out of our hands – and that is ok. It is not a bad thing. It’s actually quite beautiful, coasting on the agenda of the universe, taking things as they come and not having the burden of but what if. Rather, I found, that you come to adopt, so what? I’m not saying everything happens for a reason (perhaps it does), but I’m saying that things happen, period. I’m also not saying that you should abandon your emotions entirely, either, otherwise my ambitions and purpose in life would be pretty meaningless. I’m saying everything is inevitable, so in the most poetic way possible: strap in for the ride and thrive in the uncertainty, folks, shit’s gonna go down whether you like it or not!
I’m aware that now is really not the time to be preached at by some idiot on the internet – we are living in extremely unique times. Now is a time when we’re all very much grappling to some kind of control to try and make sense of everything that is happening. To try and self-soothe. That is human nature, that is our survival instinct kicking in.
But what if you considered the alternative? What if you decided to just embrace everything as it comes, in all its profound shittiness? (And let’s remember, not all of life is as bleak as it is today.) It’s coming to terms with what is, by surrendering your impulse to know everything. Ultimately, it (whatever may happen) is not up to us – whether you’re religious or not, that stands for every kind of belief or lack thereof. You may find it easier to just say the age-old it is what it is and you wouldn’t be wrong. But what if you turned that dejected tone into something hopeful? Now is actually the perfect time to learn about Stoicism in a more sustainable effort to do all of the above.
It’s easier said than done to just mentally ‘drop it’ (and especially if you suffer from something complex like a mental illness), but with practice and putting in the time to really learn about the philosophy behind Stoicism is truly worthwhile. A shift in perspective is all it takes to distinguish a flower from a weed (yes that is an AA quote from a TV show) or a pet from another animal on a dinner plate. It’s the same principle that applies to living daily life: you can choose to have a victimised, individualistic perspective (as I did) shadowed with pessimism, or an open, all-accepting global perspective. Your life will shift accordingly, with practice and patience.
So um, yeah, to sum up, read this book I guess? (And to Joe, THANK YOU.)
Nice work Alice. I always felt I had to keep a lid on the stoecism at work lest any parents take fright, or managers be affronted on their behalf. I passed Seneca and Aurelius to a couple of kids. Best enjoyed slowly.
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Thanks Sir! I’ve not yet delved into Seneca or Aurelius, but ‘Meditations’ has been on the list for some time, recommendations welcome! Hope you’re still keeping up the Merry Tunes…