I can’t tell you when I first became aware of stoicism, was it in PHIL 002 (entry level philosophy), was it while watching a history program, I’m not sure. What I can tell you is when it first began to click with me. That was when I saw my first YouTube video by Ryan Holiday in late 2018. Ryan Holiday is a writer, coach, speaker, and YouTuber focused on stoicism in the modern world. Next, I received a copy of “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” for Father’s Day in 2019. That copy was difficult to read because it was an early translation to English. I tried my best to read it. Ultimately, that version proved too difficult for me to read and fully comprehend.
While my first reading adventure into stoicism was difficult, it did not stop me from wanting to learn more. So, I subscribed to “The Daily Stoic” YouTube channel and newsletter (both run by Ryan Holiday). I found other videos on the topic by different content creators and then the pandemic hit.
The Pandemic, Stoicism, and Me
The pandemic changed the lives of everyone. My first day working from home was Friday, March 13, 2020. Yes, Friday the 13th. I remember picking up my daughter from school and joking with the other parents that we would see them next year. Maybe it was just a joke or maybe it was the part of me that studied history, in particular the early Twentieth Century history that came out. I didn’t realize how true that joke would be. But suddenly, I was a husband, father of two, an employee, and a teacher all at once and all the time.
And like for so many others, it became too much.
Humans have suffered through many pandemics throughout our history, but we have a short memory span when it comes to remembering them. Every time a pandemic hits, it changes us. We were lucky that this one was not as bad as previous ones. If you’re interested in learning how the world reacted to the 1918 Pandemic, I highly recommend watching this playlist by “Extra Credits History” (“The 1918 Flu Pandemic“).
Working from home was difficult for all of us at first. I was still new at my job when the pandemic started and didn’t know everyone well. The team I was part of was tiny. My wife and I were both working and different hours at that! How and where we worked all had to be figured out. Virtual classes for my daughter and then daughters had to be balanced in between meetings and calls. We figured things out, bought an extra desk, and just like that we found a new routine.
So what does the pandemic and stoicism have in common?
As I mentioned above, it was too much for me and I needed to find a way to communicate to myself what was going on, how I was seeing the world, and how I was going to remain mentally strong. That’s where stoicism came in. Unlike the English meaning of “stoic”, stoicism is not about ignoring your emotions and being cold, it is about controlling how you see the events and the world around you. It is about practicing control over yourself. You are still allowed to experience all of the happiness, beauty, and sadness, but not losing yourself to them. Remembering that you control how you view and understand what is happening. It’s about clarity.
That last bit is the important one, you control how you view and understand what is happening around you.
As the Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it, “Choose not to feel harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” “Meditations” Gregory Hayes, page 39.
You have control over your mind, so you have control over your actions. You can control how you see what’s happening. It is within you to apply meaning to what you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing.
This was extremely helpful for me. So I grabbed a copy of “Meditations” by Gregory Hayes. I bought his translation because it was in modern English which made it much easier to appreciate. I also checked out a copy of “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday from my local library. (Yes, I use my local library and so should you!) I found that I enjoyed Holiday’s style of writing and breaking things down.
I began journaling again, including starting each work day writing down three things that I am thankful for. In the beginning they were simple sentences without much thought in them (e.g., I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful that I’m alive, etc.). I was thankful for these things, but I wasn’t thinking about why I was thankful. Later, I created an Apple Shortcut on my iPad to run in the mornings. It gets my meetings, my to do items, and create a new note in Notes for me. This Shortcut helps me capture what I had planned and have to do for the day. The first prompt is “What are you thankful for”. It was a great start!
My Stoic Journey Begins
I would like to explain quickly the difference between a personal routine and a personal ritual. A routine is a set of tasks that are something you think about. This makes them flexible. A personal ritual is something you do without thinking about it. An example of a personal ritual is brushing your teeth or washing your face. You do it without thought. Routines can turn into rituals over time, so be mindful of what you choose to make routine.
I start my days early for work, but I decided to start even earlier in order to make time for this. So, I started waking up 30 minutes earlier to make sure I have time to prepare lunches for my daughters, my own breakfast (see my savory oatmeal article here), read, and write in my journal. Once my morning routine became ritual, things went better. Then I noticed my problem was at the end of the day with writing my evening reflection. There were many mornings where I was writing my evening reflection from the previous day first and then my new morning reflection. I changed this, by creating a new routine, for ending my day and immediately picking up my journal to write then and there. I would take a few minutes to collect my thoughts, think about the day and return to the assignment.
This wasn’t great because I really didn’t decompress and think about my actions clearly.
The point of a reflection is to have time to look over the long haul, and truly absorb what happened and your actions to it. So, I started trying a few different approaches. What seems to be working for me right now, is ending my day and doing a small writing task for a few minutes. Usually, it’s coping notes that I’ve scribbled in books or GoodReads on to note cards. This helps improve my memory of what I’ve read, and gives me the time and space to clear my head a little. This little change allows me to be more reflective on my day. After I write down a few notes, I come back to the evening reflection, and can reflect more clearly.
Now honestly, the evening reflection should be written before going to bed. But I can’t always stick to that because I have three children and it’s a mad rush to get everyone to bed on time! So as a parent, you learn to steal a few minutes here and there where you can.
I have nearly a full year to go on this project. What I can tell you right now, is that I feel better and even have a clearer sense of myself. I look at what is happening around me differently because I am thinking about it both more and less. I think about things more in that I ask myself, how this impacts me? Is this something I can control? If it is not something that impacts me (or my family directly) then I put it aside. If it’s something that impacts me, but I can’t control it, then I accept it, prepare for it, and let it go. This is where thinking less about things comes in. Once I’ve sorted out what I can control, I stop worrying about the rest. There is a great freedom in that.
This is only the beginning. So, I plan to write follow up posts on my progress throughout the year. In December, I’ll conclude this project and share my retrospective on findings. In the meantime, I hope you are all having a great start to 2023 and wish you the best on your journey this year!