In one of the most difficult periods of my life, I can call myself really lucky – although as it turns out later, it’s not a question of luck, it’s about much more than that – because I met a philosophy, a world view, a way of life that helped me a lot in overcoming the difficulties that faced me, do not knock me down, but teach me, through them I became wiser and stronger. And what is most important, I could solve the tasks I have been given without despair.
I saw the world through the eyes of an ancient Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, while reading his book “Reflections”, and this book opened the path to a new way of life. This way of thinking is positive and fills the person who thinks and acts like this with energy, and can help even in the midst of life’s biggest problems.
I’ve read a lot of books in my life, including, of course, philosophical ones, but after a while I realized that philosophy, in addition to being extremely entertaining and inspiring, does nothing to help solve real-life problems. These books usually raise the biggest questions in existence on the first pages, to which we do not even get meaningful answers on the remaining pages, after chewing through long expositions.
I am a person of faith, and I definitely do not think that faith does not help, I myself have come across events in my life that can best be characterized by the adjective “biblical miracle”. Still, faith places a lot of expectations on a believer, and meeting these expectations is sometimes very difficult, and we can lose a lot of energy during this struggle, which must be complemented with prayer and meditation, otherwise it will end in exhaustion and collapse. If I want to put it very simply, I would say that being good is very difficult until being good becomes a natural part of our being. Until then, however, we have to go through a difficult path, and many people give up in the meantime, becoming compromisers, trying to explain with rational arguments why they did not stay on the narrow path and why they chose an easier one.
The good thing about the stoic way of life is that it is not difficult to follow, it does not require special efforts from the person, in fact, it shows that the things that we have wasted a lot of energy on up to that point may be completely unnecessary. With this, we can make our lives easier, one might say more bearable, and even downright happy.
But what is this way of thinking that has such good and far-reaching consequences?
The first and most important idea is that we can divide things into two parts. One part, that we can control, that is, we can influence it with our decisions, the other part cannot be influenced by us. This division was later supplemented with a third group, which includes things over which we have only partial control, or we cannot say whether these things can be influenced or not. The first part of the third group is actually not an independent group, since the parts that can be influenced and that are beyond our control can be moved to the first two groups. We only have problems with things we can’t decide on right away. In the first approach, let’s put these aside, and if we have already succeeded in properly developing a way of life according to the Stoic Philosophy and become confident and strong, we can take up the undecidable things again. It is important to find a balance between controlling things that can be influenced and dealing with things that cannot directly be decided. If we don’t do this, we can easily end up spending our whole lives thinking about the Goldbach-conjecture, while many solvable problems remain unsolved.
Let’s look at a simple example: “what do I eat for dinner” is something within my scope, “is there a cheese that I like in the store” is not dependent on me. So if I imagine that I want to have a particular cheese for dinner, and there is no such cheese in the store, it is a completely unnecessary waste of energy, and it is even downright harmful to get upset about it, or to get into an argument with the shopkeeper. Because that’s not my competence. But, of course I can change my plan and choose a different kind of cheese for dinner, the kind that is available in the store. Let’s try this method just once, and then notice how liberating it is that what I have no power over has no power over me, if I don’t let it rise above me.
Another example: a car turns in front of you and doesn’t use its turn signal. You, who never commit such a thing, can shout, wave, flash, honk, but you cannot change what has happened. You may risk an accident caused by your upset nervous state, or you may be involved in a personal conflict that may turn violent. In this case, whether you use your turn signal is your decision, whether another person does so is his. His behavior may make you angry, but you are not causing harm to him, but only to yourself. On the other hand, if you smile, you have already provided yourself with positive energy.
Yes, the question may arise, is the stoic person unemotional and cowardly to intervene, running away from arguments? On the surface, it may seem so. But this is not the truth: the stoic person also feels and even prioritizes positive emotions, compassion and helpfulness are the stoic person’s own virtues. He is not afraid to intervene if he has power over what he is confronted with, and he is ready to argue if there is an opportunity for a constructive discussion. The question we always have to ask is whether we can change the things, or whether we don’t have the tools to solve the task, and in these cases it’s not worth wasting our energy unnecessarily.
A very, very important consequence of the first rule: we cannot influence the past, we cannot foresee the future, we do not even have complete control over the present, there are things in the present that we cannot influence at all due to their nature, but there are also things that which we have just missed changing. They are still in the present, but we no longer have time to influence them.
That’s why we should never, ever dwell on what we messed up in the past, what we should have done differently. What we did was the best we could do at that moment, because why would have we wanted to do anything else? We can greatly improve our well-being and zest for life if we simply let go, accept, but still let go of the past. This does not mean that we cannot learn from what happened in the past. It is always possible to learn a lesson so that in a similar case we can act differently than we did in the past, but this does not mean that being ashamed of or regretting our past actions is worthwhile or useful. You shouldn’t grieve, be sad over the past.
At the same time, the future can apparently be influenced, so maybe we should worry about it. Let’s not do it. I’m not curious about my fate for the same reason that I didn’t measure the potential water vessels under my apartment. I can’t move to another apartment, and I can’t move my bed. A prophecy that may or may not come true can destroy an entire life.
Regarding the future, we can also find good advice to take to heart in the Holy Scriptures, “don’t worry about tomorrow”. And this also harmonizes with stoic teachings, let’s just pay attention to the next task, its solution should be enough. The more things we keep in our heads, the more we get confused and lose direction. However, if we go to sleep with only the next task on our minds, the solution will arrive the next day. I can confirm this with countless personal experiences. Of course, I cannot know whether the solutions reach me with the help of the subconscious or a cosmic consciousness. One thing is for sure, since I have been living according to such principles, I can solve my tasks with much better efficiency and enthusiasm.
A technique worth mentioning, which is often used by stoics, is negative visualization, the visualization of negative consequences in our imagination and experiencing them in preparation for enduring them in the future. I don’t agree with this at all, and I don’t even use negative visualization, and I won’t write about it more here. All the more so, because there are much more useful stoic principles that I definitely want to talk about.
Desires are the destroyers of human life, expectations are the destroyers of human relationships. How many marriages, friendships and other human relationships are ruined simply because we expect something from the other person that they cannot fulfill. This will lead to disappointment, then anger, and finally a breakup, which, if we are lucky, will happen peacefully, but unfortunately there is also a high probability of a violent separation. If I ask something of the other person and think in advance what kind of answer I expect from him that is the worst thing I can do. The other person is not in the set of things that can be influenced by me, so I shouldn’t expect him to behave the way I want him to. This is a life-defining stoic principle that, if used well, will make it much easier to maintain and nurture peaceful, friendly relationships with others. Our basic task is acceptance, unconditional acceptance of life and other people, this is the love that the Gospels also speak of as the most important principle.
If the other person doesn’t react as we expected, at first we just ask back without understanding, maybe we get irritated, and the conversation gets more and more tense, negative energy accumulates in both of us, which sooner or later leads to an explosion. On the other hand, if we do not have any presuppositions or expectations, but simply accept what the other person says, the conflict cannot even arise. Of course, it may happen that the other person expects an answer from us that we cannot give him, and because of this he becomes angry and irritated. We can safely tell him that he expected something from us that we can’t fulfill, even don’t want to do, since we are free beings, and if he didn’t get what he expected, it’s because he had false expectations about us.
What should we do if we meet people who are unable to communicate with us without expectations and who definitely want to influence us. In this case, the stoic moves on and avoids meeting negative, toxic people. He realizes that these people are at another level in the learning process, that they also have to go through their own path, so in no way should you offend them or act superior to them. You have to love them too, but you shouldn’t let their negative energies get close to you.
The next very, very important principle, also in line with the Gospels, is refraining from judgment. By this we mean not only abandoning judgment of other people, but also the classification and assessment of events and feelings in general. There is no good and no bad. There are feelings, events, happenings that we form an opinion by ourselves, we sort them into boxes and classes, and although this seems like a useful act, it actually has more disadvantages than advantages. Few people think that what seems very bad now can later turn out to be beneficial to us, and what seems dazzlingly good at first glance, say a bigger prize, can possibly ruin our lives. Of course, there are absolute good and bad things, actions, and events, but most of the world is not like that. In most cases, the best thing is to accept it and completely abandon judgement, forming opinions, it is not necessary to categorize everything into small boxes, the world is much more complicated and interesting, because of this, let’s accept it as it is. The color blue is not good or bad in itself, we can like it or avoid it, but it is up to us, our brain judges, and this is not always good.
A stoic person just lets the world affect him, perceives it, lets it in, breathes in its scents, admires its colors and lights, is enchanted by its sounds, but does not judge it. Because judgments and opinions are just products of our brain. Of course, the experiences accumulated during our lives have shaped the way we judge the world, and we think that this can help in all cases. All I want to say is, let’s try the life without judgment, let’s make sure if this kind of life is for us or not. If so, we can have an easier and more likable life.
My personal experience is that following and experiencing the Stoic Philosophy, outlook on life, and lifestyle made my life much happier and more harmonious. I worry less, I get less annoyed with others, and the energy I save can be used in other ways. I am better able to pay attention to my own path, what tasks were given to me at birth, I am more open to help others and receive signs from the spiritual world, I know what is important and what would only drag me back to the earthly mire.
Why was my encounter with Stoic Philosophy not just pure luck? My life is a constant learning, and for some reason – I attribute this to the intercession of the spiritual world – what I need always comes to me. A book, a video, a poem, a person, a film, an idea, somehow always stumbles in front of me at the right moment. And as I reached a level of understanding on my journey to discover the world, I was given the tools to move to a higher level, in this case it was Marcus Aurelius’ book, and then the other books, videos and my own thoughts that I needed to become a follower and active practitioner of Stoic Philosophy today. .
Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius. They lived stoic lives and left us a legacy that can make our lives whole and valuable and, most importantly, useful to others. If we read their works and use Stoic Philosophy, we will be rewarded with a fuller life.
Nyíregyháza, September 26-28, 2023.
English translation: October 3, 2023