Even before COVID-19 hit, my 2020 could be summed up in one word: limbo.
I was caught in the loop of need-job-for-visa, but also need-visa-for-job. I had no idea what I’d do if I did have to move back to the country I hadn’t lived in for over a decade. I didn’t even know where I would go back to; a country never seems so vast as when you have zero connections there. For months, I’d been living in both terror and anticipation of Schrödinger’s visa sliding through the mail slot (Letterbox? Mailbox? Which English do I even speak now?) . Every day it didn’t come was a relief, but also another day of worrying, and wondering.
My partner would offer advice from Seneca or Marcus Aurelius on the various Stoic principles as a way of coping. Outwardly, I scoffed at the idea. What could these long-dead Romans say that would apply to my 21st-century problems at all? Despite fully believing the notion ridiculous, I did listen. When you’ve tried all possible solutions, the ridiculous ones don’t seem so ridiculous anymore.
Wisdom: Can I Fix It?
April 2020. Midafternoon. Somewhere in Kent: In February, the UK had its first case, followed by its first death. By March, the country was in lockdown. By April, we knew lockdown would be extended, but no one knew for how long. The optimistic said May; others said June. The pessimistic (realistic?) said definitely until September, at least.
This was one ambiguity too many: I had hit my limit of Not Knowing. On a sunny afternoon in April, I had my first lockdown-induced meltdown.
“The Stoics would say we shouldn’t be concerned with things outside our control,” my partner said.
“Screw the Stoics,” I said. “What do they know anyway?”
“Just read Marcus Aurelius,” he told me. So I did. We were under lockdown during a pandemic; what else was I going to do?
Meditations was not a revelatory experience for me. Most of what it said was exactly what I expected a powerful and privileged man to say about the nature of life and living. There were a handful of concepts that intrigued me, though, so I kept digging. Or rather, I started looking around. Stoicism has experienced a huge surge in popularity in recent years, particularly by the entrepreneur and tech set with the likes of business guru Tim Ferriss, New York Observer’s Ryan Holiday, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey among its chief advocates. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the company involved, but I was intrigued by the connection between business and philosophy. It’s not such an odd pairing, I realize now, but coming from a strict humanities background, I had some elitist ideas of my own.
In doing my research, though, I kept circling back to two central ideas:
- Stoicism is more of a way of life than an area of knowledge
- Most things are out of our control
The first, I found interesting. The second, I resisted. I was always of the mind that if nothing else, I could will the universe into submission. As I’ve gotten older, and this has repeatedly proven to be untrue, I’ve had to face the realization that there will be circumstances where I am completely helpless. That awareness was (is) one of the most distressing facts of life for me. But the idea of managing a zen-like acceptance of my fate was tantalizing in the way that calm is always tantalizing to those who’ve never had it.
I have many feelings, often intensely and all at once. I knew expecting to stop those feelings was unrealistic and unhealthy, but understanding what to do with them was certainly something I could benefit from. Every time a feeling felt overwhelming, I took a deep breath and asked myself: can I fix this? If the answer was no (which it usually was), the next question was: what can I do?
The first few weeks of doing this, I cycled through that internal flow chart easily 10 or 20 times an hour, most often about the same situation. More than once, I got frustrated. I thought: This is stupid and pointless and will never work.
But then, slowly – very, very, very slowly – it began to change the way I reacted to situations. The feeling wouldn’t go away completely; if something made me unhappy, I wouldn’t suddenly become overjoyed. I learned to endure the discomfort, though. I learned to be okay with not being okay.
Emotions run deep within our race. In many ways, more deeply than in humans. Logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience. The control of feelings, so that they do not control you.Sarek, Star Trek (2009)
To me, that was revolutionary.
Justice: Do they suffer?
June 2020. Mid-morning. Somewhere in Kent: I grew up with Catholicism on one shoulder and a vaguely pagan aesthetic on the other. As a result, I developed a deep appreciation for pageantry, ritual, and long, velvet robes. And, on the heels of the aesthetic, came the specific vocabulary of spirituality.
The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
With that spiritual language embedded in my brain, as well as living tooth and jowl with the moods of nature itself, the idea that all living things are connected took hold at a very young age.
My PhD thesis specialized in concepts of the human’s relationship to its environment, and the stories told to make sense of that – I naturally dipped a toe or two into posthuman concepts, which led me to animal theory and Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was just a minor sidequest en route to other ideas, but that one question stuck with me: Can they suffer? So when I encountered Stoicism’s monistic idea of a universal substance present in every creature and thing, it not only fit naturally into my own preconception of the universe but resurrected Bentham’s question in my mind.
I had never been a particularly avid meat eater; as a student, meat products were often a luxury outside my budget, and afterward, a majority of my peers were vegan or vegetarian, so meat featured very rarely in my diet. Still, it was there. And while I had become adept at not thinking about the where or how my food was sourced, this moment, rereading Bentham’s words, I couldn’t let it go. I became a vegetarian. I don’t know about the accuracy of others’ experiences with this, but my peers were always very positive about the adjustment. “You won’t even miss it,” they said.
They lied. I went through many, many guilty, self-recriminating months of hamburger fantasies and regret over no longer being able to eat at that fantastic Caribbean barbecue place around the corner, but I persevered. It did not get any easier. Six months later, I still cannot walk by the chippy without salivating over the smell of battered fish and thick, greasy chips (I don’t even like fish), but I have found conviction in acknowledging four things:
- I am a bad vegetarian, and that’s okay. It’s a journey, not a destination.
- Alone, I can’t eradicate all suffering from the world, but I can reduce my complicity in it.
- Even in my own life, I can’t remove all harmful consequences of my actions – for my survival, something somewhere will ultimately suffer – but I can still minimize the overall destruction I cause.
- No creature is capable of being wholly good or evil, but we can strive toward either with our intentions.
Whatever motivations others have for their dietary choices, for me, the ability to maintain it is a belief in justice, nonhuman personhood, and the interconnectedness of all things.
Temperance: Am I Really Living?
September. Late, late night. Somewhere in Kent: I am not good with the word “no.” While I’m not great at saying it to myself, I am absolutely abysmal at saying “no” to anyone else. Essentially, I have two modes: binge-watching Netflix all day unproductive and crashing through back-to-back 16-hour days. I overindulge or under-provide; there is no middle ground. Work – whether the day job or one of various side hustles – is the biggest culprit here, but it spills over into all aspects of my life.
Working from home (I’d found a job by this point) added a whole new layer of intensity to the problem; how do you make yourself not work when you are literally living in your office? What do you do when you can’t rely on the traditional excuses – the materials aren’t accessible, a colleague is unavailable, you’re not physically in a position to do anything until X time? Not responding to “out of hours” IMs took a level of self-control I did not possess, and more than once I stopped some other activity to deal with some work-related task absolutely no one expected me to take care of at that precise moment.
For weeks, I’d packed my days full of researching, writing, and proofreading articles, podcasts, blog posts, papers – anything someone sent my way with a blithe, “Can you do this real quick?” I lost track of the number of friends and family recommending I try yoga or meditation to destress. Even Twitter started trying to peddle mindfulness to me.
And so, one very late night in mid-September I had to face the beyond-distressing realization that, of the list of tasks I’d assigned myself that day, I wouldn’t even accomplish half, and the ones I’d already finished weren’t done very well – at least, not the way I wanted them done. The further twist of the screw: the article I was working on was all about how important a healthy work/life balance is in our new WFH reality, with advice on how to achieve it. I’d like to say that my revelation was as dramatic as Arianna Huffington’s, but alas. I am a quieter soul, and no stitches were required as I switched off my devices and went to sleep for a very long time.
When I woke up, before I was even out of bed, I was pinging my colleague to say I hadn’t actually finished the article I’d promised to send her. “No problem” she wrote back. “Send it over whenever you’re ready.”
For me, in that moment, that small, simple statement was as profound a wakeup call as if I had passed out and cracked my skull on the corner of my desk. Burning myself out – filling up every spare second of my time with doing – wasn’t benefiting anyone, least of all me. As I’d end up writing in another article about Stoicism: Time is not a renewable resource, so spend it wisely.
Having too much of anything really isn’t healthy – but it’s also not sustainable. If you work nonstop every day, eventually – either by choice or by force – you will have to stop. It may be due to your work quality, or an attentive manager forcing you to take the day, or, worse case scenario: you or someone else gets hurt because you’re not performing at your best.
The opposite is true, as well. I remember getting “snow days” as a kid, and eagerly watching the news scrawl the night before to see if our county was on the list of schools closed the next day. There was an excitement to it; a feeling of getting away with something. The early days of lockdown had a sort of “snow day” feel to them for a lot of us, I think. It was an excuse to loosen up, wear comfier clothes, and move at a slower pace.
But when the highlight of your day is changing from your day pj’s into your night pj’s and you can’t remember the last time you had a real shower, the feeling is a little different. It becomes a vicious cycle. You stop putting effort into something, which makes you feel a little bad about yourself, which makes that something seem even more difficult to do, which makes you feel worse, and before you know it, you’re not even putting effort into the little things anymore. You need more to your life than day pj’s and night pj’s.
This has been one of the hardest principles to embrace. I am not a mindfulness/meditation type of person. I’ve tried it, and while people always say there’s no wrong way to do either, I always feel like I’m doing it wrong. Likewise, after writing for 8-10 hours a day, the last thing I want to do is write more about spending my day writing.
Still, since my “revelation,” I’ve accepted the benefit of self-reflection. I started simple: my morning shower. It is really difficult to write a blog post or participate in a Zoom meeting while you’re showering. It’s like a forced period of disconnect, and I decided to take advantage of that. It’s only 5 or 10 minutes, but in that time, I don’t think about my to-do list, or tasks that aren’t completed. Those 5 or 10 minutes a day are all mine to be present in the moment and practice some self-reflection.
[Failure] helps us grow and encourages us to be more rigorous with ourselves – whether working harder, learning new skills, or just changing our approach.Adam Harrison-Henshall, Process Street
I still struggle with the work/life imbalance; honestly, it was easier to give up smoking. It’s after 11 p.m. as I’m writing this, and I have definitely pole-vaulted past the standard eight-hour workday. Failing is okay, though. If I fail today, I’ll try a new approach tomorrow. In the end, I’ve still learned something.
Courage: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?
November 2020. Late, late night. Somewhere in Kent: Like many in 2016, I truly did not expect the US election to go the way it did. It was a crushing shock that had long-ranging effects on both my little micro-world and the greater macro-world.
Even in 2019, I was not hopeful about the 2020 presidential election. I wanted to be, but I just couldn’t muster it. As disaster after disaster occurred – conflict, violence, destruction, discrimination – I lost even more faith in the American people and humans in general.
By November 3, I thought I knew what the outcome would be. I’d already dealt with my personal feelings about that, and had been working hard to emotionally distance myself from what I believed was the inevitable result. And then, in the very late hours of that Tuesday (or the very early hours of that Wednesday), I couldn’t not look anymore. Biden hadn’t won yet, but the margin was already huge and the likelihood of Trump catching up was slim. Even though I wasn’t quite as ready to celebrate a victory as some of my peers, the relief I felt was phenomenal.
For the better part of a year, my partner had been trying to convince me of the benefits of negative visualization. Admittedly, I didn’t get it. My response was always: I don’t need to practice thinking about the worst-case scenario. I do that all the time anyway.
After the 2020 US election, I realized I’d been thinking about worst-case scenarios incorrectly. I’d been dwelling on the wrongness of the scenario, and not the solution. Not the plan. I do love a plan. With the election, I didn’t obsess about the outcome – positive or negative – but I prepared myself for the eventuality that it would be negative. I processed my feelings about it. I decided how I would respond. I thought about how it would affect my life. I also asked myself if there was anything I could do about it that I hadn’t already done (there was not).
On November 3, I was impatient, but I wasn’t a mess of anxiety. I was composed enough to go about my day, and even not think about what was happening for the most part. I did not end up wasting productivity and energy on doom-scrolling or staring at poll projections before the first districts had closed. I had prepared for the worst, and the worst hadn’t happened.
Uncertainty, Imperfection, and Living Immediately
December 2020. Early afternoon. Somewhere in Kent: There is no one path to Stoicism (as this piece shows). There is no guidebook of how it should be done. There are writings, yes, but at best, these are merely accounts of other practitioners’ journeys – their successes and failures, and their ruminations on both. Even the most Stoic of Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – admitted that, not only had they not mastered Stoicism, but no mortal human could ever hope to.
Stoicism is not a destination, and part of beginning to understand the philosophy is understanding that you can only ever practice Stoicism imperfectly. Once you accept that, you can proceed from there, and the process becomes immensely more manageable.
Back in April, the hardest thing about the pandemic was not knowing. It was uncertain how long the lockdown would last. It was uncertain how long the pandemic would last. I railed against every second of it – and I made myself miserable as a result. I’m not happy the pandemic happened, but it has allowed me to make my peace with uncertainty. I have a better appreciation for imperfections – in life, in others, and in myself. We are all struggling through our own journeys of discovery; the only person’s progress I should be concerned with is my own. Most importantly, though, I have learned the value of this moment, right now, which will never happen again.
So, one year on from my very first ventures into Stoicism, do I consider myself a Stoic? No, but I keep practicing. Maybe one day.