This is our final excerpt in the ‘Street Stoicism’ series, in which Marcin offers some short reflections on living the Stoic life in general.
Autumn in Warsaw. Livid sky, wet, almost sticky rain, russet grass. The withering leaves fall off the trees at my sight, as if somebody was directing a one-man audience play called Everything has to die at some point, and by that I mean pretty soon.
I’m walking down the street with the burden of groceries in my bag and the burden of sorrow on my chest. I’ve gained weight again, the project I’d been working on for three years is falling apart and I will probably lose my job, writing the book about the Stoics does seem to be going somewhere, but it’s going the hard way and stumbling on some rocks. And worst of all – I’m turning forty soon.
In the middle of this – quite unphilosophical – situation, I make a decision: things are the way they are. Every Stoic would tell me: “You are standing here, fellow, on a pavement that is full of holes and with a bag that is full of vegetables, dairy and mineral water, as a consequence of a chain of countless factors. No matter how much you would try, you wouldn’t be standing a milimeter further right now. So chill out.”
A sudden thought enters my mind:
I’m only experiencing life, nothing more.
This one thought clears my chest of depression. I only feel one thing right now – great relief. If I needed a proof of efficiency of Stoic techniques, here it is. Something becomes very clear to me for a couple of moments – I was suffering only because I had told myself that I was suffering. It was just a wrong interpretation of neutral reality. I’m just experiencing life – something that cannot hurt me; everything else is self-tormenting.
If a Stoic were asked what he was thinking about – he should, according to Marcus Aurelius, be able to answer right away, effortlessly and at ease: this and this. So he has to be constantly aware of his thoughts, and the thoughts should be simple and kind. And the mind should be free from the tormentor who keeps attacking and punishing us and sucking out our life energy.
Attentiveness to the present moment sets us free from one more thing –suffering caused by the need to solve our problems definitively and to gain eternal happiness. Life is like a jigsaw-puzzle where the picture keeps changing, and on top of it there are always a couple of elements missing. The belief that we can put life together in a finished, unchanging picture, is a fanatasy. It is a kind of delusion; I will be happy as soon as I get a better job, retire, build a house. The Stoics have no doubts – you can only be happy in the present moment. “Such persons do not live, but are preparing to live.” – says Seneca.
Philosophy lives because it has new things to call into question in every epoch. Stoicism in every age should re-discover exercises, techniques and maxims as shields against the influence of thinking patterns which lead people to self-torment.
In our own contemporary world – more complicated than ever before – the Stoics would probably recommend a simpler life even more vigorously than they did at the beginning of the common era, as a simple life leads to clarity of thinking, and this in turn to the feeling of joy.