One thing that can be discerned from studying human history is that we are no strangers to suffering. The litany of wars, famines, plagues, and natural disasters shows us how fundamental suffering is to the human condition. Unfortunately for us, nothing can be done to remedy this; the pinwheel of human misfortune continues to spin ad infinitum. This should not despair us however. As the philosophy of Stoicism demonstrates, our ability to endure is just as apparent as our ability to suffer.
Emerging in Ancient Greece around two thousand years ago, Stoicism sought to address one serious and practical concern: how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming misfortune. To achieve this, the Stoics compel us to examine what is in our control, and what is not. The Stoics want us to understand that the tragedies that befall our lives are not always within our control; they want us to realize that sometimes life refuses to align with our expectations, and that living is not without its tragedies. While each succeeding trouble may seem like the end of the world to us, we should take comfort knowing that the way in which we respond to suffering is fully in our control. Our recent exposure to the Coronavirus is reflective of this, and is at the heart of Stoic philosophy.
When misfortune greets us, we (more often than not) react dramatically by thinking we have been wronged by the world, or that we somehow deserve our suffering. In figuring out why we have been bestowed with such bad luck, we tear ourselves apart and become irrevocably bitter at the world. Whether it be the death of a loved one, the collapse of a business, or the spread of a virus, wallowing in self-despair becomes the emergency exit. If we embrace the Stoic way of thinking however, this need not be the case.
Recognizing that our lives are at the precipice of sudden misfortune should not despair, but rather empower. It important to remember that our ability to act freely and think out of our own volition breeds resilience during these tough times. With the level of anxiety this pandemic has stirred, it is easy to fall victim to fear and despondency. Yet to the Stoics, conceding to these negative emotions inhibit our capacity for control; to surrender is to destroy our humanity. It is only when we embrace the Stoic’s capacity for control that we may subdue our tumultuous minds, and soften the world’s harrowing noise.
Stoicism gives us no reason to diminish the suffering brought about by this pandemic. Rather, Stoicism empowers us in the way philosophy should. It allows us to defiantly live in a world bombarded by countless setbacks, uncertainty, and arbitrariness; it teaches us that misfortune should not cause despair, that we are stronger than our anxieties, and that ultimately, we can find enlightenment in a chaotically indifferent world.