You hear the words “unprecedented times” quite often, but are these times truly unprecedented? Did no society in the past go through grueling pandemics that shifted their entire way of life? And if they did, how did they mentally survive such circumstances?
Humanity has dealt with pandemics since the inception of our species. We, in our modernity, have been graced with medicine our ancestors did not have access to. This has made us believe that we are immune to the challenges of nature; laughing it off altogether.
And then a virus suddenly comes around that turns all of our lives on their heads.
Pandemics were not foreign to the Stoic Philosophers. In fact, the Stoic and Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, ruled over Rome during the lengthy 15-year Antonine Plague. What is believed by modern scientists to have been “smallpox” decimated ⅓ of Rome’s population and crippled its military. Thankfully, Marcus Aurelius had the unshakable will to guide the Roman people through such hardship.
How did he muster the mental fortitude to deal with something so devastating and indifferent? Emperor Aurelius would perform the same four rituals each day in order to keep himself level-headed.
The Four Stoic Rituals of Mental Fortitude
1. It Could Be Worse – But You’ll Be Ready
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness…” – Marcus Aurelius
You might say, “Well that sounds terrible. There’s no way I’m starting out my day with that sort of negativity…” But Emperor Aurelius knew he couldn’t risk being surprised by the indecent behavior of others or the cold behavior of natural events.
When we are surprised by the actions of others, they suddenly have more control over us than if we were prepared for the worst. It doesn’t matter what day it is; something is going to get in your way, and you are going to have to deal with it. It’s best to remind yourself that you are ready to take that on. It’s not pessimistic. It’s realistic.
You would never walk into a Muay Thai or Jiu Jitsu match thinking it’s going to be smooth sailing. In fact, thinking this way will decimate your will as soon as your opponent gains the upper hand. You prepare yourself for the worst. You practice all the hard positions you could find yourself in. If you prepare yourself for setbacks and have a plan, frustration cannot sink its claws in very deeply. Our mind and body will be ready to act.
Psychologists call this method “decatastrophizing.” It helps you realize that frustrations are absolutely going to occur, but that won’t stop you from moving forward; the world won’t end.
2. Contemplation of the Sage
“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face is mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight. – Seneca
The Stoics primary aim was to become what they called the “Sage.” They were all well aware that it was impossible to ever become this sage, but that it was of the utmost importance to strive to become this sage.
Now imagine, in your mind’s eye, an individual who holds all of the qualities that you wish to have. They are steadfast, honest, they don’t flinch at a challenge, they acknowledge their emotions and work through them, etc.
Even though you can never become this perfect embodiment of a human being, frequently exercising the “idea” of them in your mind will move your behavior closer and closer to this ideal.
You can use real people in your life as examples; religious figures like Buddha or Jesus, or famous thinkers and heroes from the past and present. Or you can throw all of these singular images out and Frankenstein a Sage out of many individuals who embody aspects of the person you want to become.
Whenever you are having trouble figuring out what your next course of action should be, look to this “Sage” in your mind in order to obtain guidance. What would your Sage do?
3. The Disembodied Eye
Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous: being but creatures of your own fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thoughts sweep over the entire universe, contemplating the illimitable tracts of eternity. – Marcus Aurelius
Everyone needs a bit of perspective when things are going south. So let’s shift ours a little bit. First, think of yourself, exactly where you are, then expand that view out to your quaint neighborhood, then your bustling city, then your much larger country, then your expansive continent, then the giant world as a whole, then the gargantuan solar system, and so on.
Think of the problems in your life in a similar manner. View your life as this moment, then this day, this week, month, year, decade, and then as a whole in itself. The issues you are facing today are a mere speck in the grand scheme of things just like you are a mere speck in the universe.
This isn’t to diminish what you are going through right now. This is to remind you that, just as you are small compared to the rest of the universe, your problem right now is small in comparison to your entire life. You have had problems and obstacles galore in your past, and you have gotten through them just as you will get through this.
When you take the “view from above,” like the Stoics did, you can destroy the illusion that your immediate problem is swallowing your life whole. You realize how small it really is, and how strong you really are.
4. Amor Fati – Love of Fate
“In short, the wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power, but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.” – Seneca
The ancient Stoics concluded that nature had its ebbs and flows, and to emotionally toil against its currents would only lead to further misery. Fighting against what you can’t control is like trying to strangle a mountain.
Instead of forcing nature to bend to your will, the stoics suggested you endure it with gratitude.
Events are not good or bad, your interpretation of them makes them good or bad. You have control over process, not outcome. According to the Stoics, to allow outcomes to have control over your happiness is absurd. You cannot control other people, major events, your malfunctioning computer, etc, but you can control the way you react to such things and think about those things.
The obstacles in your way become your way because they are training your mind/body/spirit. They are things to be grateful for and work through instead of looked at as looming, terrible monsters we can never master. You may not be able to strangle the mountain in front of you with your bare hands, but you can learn to climb it and see the world from the top.
Marcus Aurelius preached that we should not stress about the things we cannot control, and instead focus on the smaller things that we can. Controlling your diet, exercise regime, the words that come out of your mouth; even how much sleep you get. Controlling your reaction to events, not the events themselves, was the crux of his entire philosophy. This is the way that we find a “good base” and keep ourselves from spiraling into the clutches of despondency.
“I am going to win,” is self-defeating. You can never actually control the outcome, and you are only setting yourself up for failure. “I am going to train as hard as I possibly can,” is something within your control. By recognizing that your control lies in your training, you can actually step into your power.
How should one react to the killer essence of an indifferent virus? To pestilence and indifference? You cannot make rational sense of a virus and billions of people’s reactions to it. It is what it is. The only way you can gain any semblance of control around the chaos it brings is to focus on what is within your power to change. You find your place in the chaos and dance with the changing times. You flow like water on the path of least resistance.