Perennial advice from great minds that were there before us.

Photo Credit: Vince Alongi

It’s been a tough year—and though it’s been worse for some than others, it has given each of us pause. Whether you’ve come through it relatively unscathed or you’ve lost a great deal— your life is not what it was.

Times like these provoke us to ask fundamental questions about life, and I have learned over the years that I can better put my own experiences into perspective by learning how others have dealt with life’s challenges before me. Sometimes it’s comforting to see my own experiences reflected back to me. Other times, I am able to put them into perspective by seeing how others have dealt with challenges so much greater than my own. Sometimes I just need another perspective.

Below is small selection of wisdom that has helped me come to terms with the past year — both from great thinkers and traditions who teach us how to better respond to life’s challenges, as well as regular people who faced challenges so much grander than ours, and were able to leave their thoughts with us.

1. Viktor Frankl: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

Psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl is a writer I have returned to over and over again. A man who survived the worst that humanity had to give, and found meaning in it.

Frankl survived Auschwitz, and through that struggle came to understand the importance that meaning has in our lives — the importance of having something to live for. In this quote he challenges and compels us to understand that we are in no position to make demands out of life, or assume that life owes us anything. We are, rather subject to life and it’s how we respond to it that matters most.

Though he went into that camp full of ideas about the human psyche, he left with a whole new philosophy based on his experiences there. This transformation didn’t come easily. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes:

“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Instead of wishing life itself were different from what is, instead try asking yourself what life is demanding from you in this very moment. Once you accept the circumstances of your life, rather than fighting them, you can respond to life more freely.

2. Seneca: “I should prefer to see you abandoning grief than it abandoning you.”

Whenever I identify that the source of my trouble is something I cannot change, I return again and again to the Stoics. A stoic perspective helps us bear the world better by helping us identify what we can and cannot control — and learning not to dwell on that. This year has been full of loss, so by all means grieve — but do not dwell.

Grieve the loss of health, your loved ones, your job, that world you thought was secure, or even just your freedom to travel. But don’t identify with that grief. Do the grieving that you need to do, and then let it go. As Seneca explains in Letters from a Stoic, grief serves a purpose, but when it is prolonged it stops serving a productive purpose and becomes a source of suffering on its own.

Freud echoed this many hundreds of years later in his famous essay Mourning and Melancholia — warning that prolonged or unresolved grief risks becoming depression. That’s a whole other problem.

Nobody can say how long is long enough to grieve and let go, and grief can return in a variety of forms across a lifetime — it’s natural. However, we cannot live fully if we are attached to grief or in constant fear of loss (which equates to a fear of grieving).

“Whatever can happen at any time,” warns Seneca, “can happen today.” The pandemic did happen today, but we are still here, so let it be a wake up call to us all. Grieve the loss of what could have been, but then move on and respond to what is.

3. Marcus Aurelius: “Do not live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you.”

When I first read Aurelius, I could not believe how much wisdom could be fit in one single book. I return again and again to his wisdom, which encourages us to take on the world with our eyes wide open so we can do what Frankl asked us, and respond to what life expects from us.

We can be hypnotised into believing that death is always at some far off juncture in the future. This denial of death can make us not take the present moment seriously enough. Oftentimes we are not reminded of this existential situation until it comes knocking on our door like feeling a lump that wasn’t there before — or somebody close to us dies. This pandemic is a similar reminder, let’s put it to use.

This year has seen many deaths — not just of people, but of careers, of plans, of expectations. If we have been so lucky as to have avoided becoming very ill ourselves, or having lost a loved one, we have all still lost something. Let this loss be a reminder of the preciousness of time: a reminder that circumstances can change quickly, and that we really don’t have nearly as much control over our lives as we might think.

Awareness of limits can focus us more closely towards our goals, helping us to ensure that our goals are in alignment with our spirit and purpose: but only if we’re listening to that message. Meditate on that limit and move.

4. Ojibwe saying: “Sometimes I go about with pity for myself and all the while the Great Winds are carrying me across the sky.”

This one came to me via an unlikely source, an episode of The Sopranos where this pithy message mysteriously showed up in Tony’s hospital room after his near death experience. When we open up our eyes to the world as it is, our corner of it can seem very small indeed.

Like all the wisdom so far, this one too echoes warnings about how self-absorbed we can be. Human beings are naturally self-involved, and while we should care for our wellbeing, putting “me” at the centre of everything is a recipe for suffering. When you hear your “woe is me” story, give it a break, and look up into the sky.

While for some “the Great Winds” point to a god figure in whom we can rest our trust and faith, for others less deistically inclined, it is simply pointing to the vastness of the universe in which we are just a tiny spec. From the ego perspective everything feels so big and important to us, but in the context of the whole of everything, well, the winds just keep blowing, just like they always have.

This saying echos Seneca’s advice above — to hold onto grief is to go about in pity for oneself. To accept the loss and let oneself flow with the wind is liberation.

5. Anne Frank: “Think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy.”

You may think you are locked down, but everything is relative. While we may “go about in pity of ourselves,” remember that Anne Frank went for 761 days without stepping outside once: and it only got worse. But given these extreme limitations, she did not give up. Instead she became a keen observer and writer, producing the Diary of a Young Girl, which thankfully survived and would inspire millions in generations to come.

But the lesson here is not that she had it worse that you and me!

In her diary Anne notes her mother’s advice to “think of all the suffering in the world and be glad you’re not a part of it.” But Anne disagrees with this. She finds it more productive not to think of the misery of others, but rather the beauty that still remains. Not only does this demonstrate her independence of thought and strength of character at such a young age, but also her wonderful insight and wisdom.

Anne Frank wouldn’t want you to feel better because she had it worse — but instead to find beauty even in misfortune:

“I don’t think Mother’s advice can be right, because what are you supposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You’d be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune.”

6. Epictetus: “These may not be the circumstances that you want, but is it really up to you to choose them?”

I may be over-representing the Stoics here, but it’s with good reason. Stoic philosophy can particularly help us in times like these, when so much is outside of our control. Epictetus does this with a particular kind of ‘tough love’.

Sometimes we need tough love, especially when we allow the things that we can’t change to unduly get under our skin. The Stoic position is to understand and accept the reality of things and deal with them as dispassionately and honestly as we can.

Echoing Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus wants us to see things as they are, not as we would prefer them to be. Once we do this we stop spending our limited energy on fretting and regretting that things are not as we wish, and start spending energy on how we can respond to the world as it is. Epictetus is most famous for the expression:

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Well, even I admit this is a bit over the top. Of course what happens to you matters, but once it’s happened, all you really have left is how to respond to it. So respond with your feelings — grieve, cry, wail, and scream. And once you’ve done that, accept the landscape as it is now, and respond.

7. Hillel: “I get up, I walk, I fall down. Meanwhile I keep dancing.”

I saved this optimistic one for last. It’s a variation on the theme of how human beings accept and adjust to reality, but we can adjust with joy! To stumble is human, but can’t we dance while we stumble along? Irving Berlin also echoed this sentiment more recently:

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance

Even Anne Frank was still able to enjoy the church bells of the neighbouring Westerkerk though she was unable to go outside and see them ring. All of us have much wider options, even if they’re only in our own neighbourhood.

In summary, we can condense this wisdom down to these principles. We respond with an open heart to what life expects from us; we grieve as long as we need to and no more; we remind ourselves that everything ends at some point, so we stay awake to what the present demands of us; we resist self pity and open our hearts to the bigger picture; we find beauty where we can around us; we don’t damn reality when we don’t like it, we respond to it; and we do all of the above with a kick in our step, and joy in our hearts.

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