Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”. Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today. And now, Betty’s post!
“We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found.”
This Marcus Aurelius quote is now committed to memory — a faculty ailing as time passes — to be drawn out as needed. And that’s frequently. At age 58, a world of past pain lives in memory, coupled with thinning time for happiness. Marcus’s wise words remind me to appreciate that I am here, now, and to be mindful of how every precious day is spent, even if it’s light-years from what I envisioned 40 years ago.
When I was a teen, my mother — who died at 65, within a year after retiring — advised, “Do whatever makes you happy.” But what was that?
In that Girl-Most-Likely-to-Succeed high school era, the future was bright. I thought happiness might be a wonderful career traveling and writing as a journalist. If you had told me that I would become a stay-at-home mom living in Las Vegas, then a madly struggling divorcée-turned-middle-school-teacher, now facing old-age poverty, I would have thought you were a major asshole, and dismissed it. But the universe will have its way with us.
A hometown friend’s father, when I was in my early 40s and recently released from marriage, affirmed what I knew others were thinking when he point-blank stated, “You were a disappointment. We all thought you were going to go out there and set the world on fire.” And life was a disappointment to me, then and forward. Happiness has been only a fickle and elusive companion.
Fortune steered me to The Emperor’s Handbook (Hicks and Hicks’ translation of Marcus Aurelius) a few years ago, at a time when anger, centered around my job, was eating me alive. Marcus spoke to my trials with this deeply-rooted, negative emotion. I found tools I’d never held. I scoped out Stoicism online, and chipped away, if only amateurishly. I made progress. I accepted my place, and rejected anger.
The job was a link in a chain of events that had begun a few decades earlier. Stoicism has helped me stop blaming myself for everything that’s gone wrong, for things out of my control, thus helping to balance self-loathing and shame. I still do stupid things, and things for which I’m sorry, but now I try to analyze, detachedly, what caused them; to reflect on how to get a grip; to read my Stoic texts; to offer apologies and make amends as best I can. I try to keep things in perspective and be gentler to myself and others.
As I navigate the challenges and poignancy of being an old human, I will look to Stoicism as the counsel I didn’t have in my twenties when a permanent disease captured me, and in the subsequent decades that I spent kicking and screaming about it, while simultaneously blaming myself for failure. Instead of happiness, I seek relative peace in climbing this mountain toward the end, ultimately alone, and for acceptance that it will be a daily struggle, but one in which I may find, occasionally, jewels and delicacies to savor and share.
Happiness should be fleeting, as it is just an emotion like others. Now that I’ve found a philosophy that acknowledges that the door is open, I am no longer drawn to peeking into that door daily. It’s there if I need it in an extreme case, but it’s not where I want to go. I hope, instead, that the universe may grant me the wisdom to recognize and enjoy the wonder that is here now.
Betty Buehler finds it a work-in-progress to attempt to apply Stoic principles while teaching sixth-grade science outside of downtown Las Vegas, where she also lives. After giving up writing for some time, she’s back at it. Recently, two of her travel articles appeared at bootsnall.com. She is currently writing about an Italy trip, and friends and family in the Facebook age.