When things are scary, when we’re overwhelmed, when we’re struggling, it’s tempting to look for a shortcut, for a pill that makes you feel better, for a TV show that helps you turn off your brain. Nothing makes that clearer than the last couple years of alarmingly destabilizing global events. People have turned to all sorts of magical solutions to get through these dark days, from meditation to self-help gurus to sending countless tweets and petitions off into cyberspace.
These things help us cope with the overwhelming world around us… but of course, only temporarily.
Tim Ferriss and Tyler Cowen recently talked about this on Tim’s podcast. Tim asked what Tyler might recommend—besides the wisdom of the Stoics—that would help people find equanimity and peace amidst the craziness. Tyler’s answer was counterintuitive, as always:
I feel a bit of the people in that position, it’s like they want some kind of talisman, almost like a voodoo object. I don’t know if they really want to be more detached and dispassionate or they just want the talisman and maybe my advice would be to think through, “Do you just want the talisman?”
That’s a great question to ask ourselves when we’re reading the Stoics, watching the news, or considering an experiment with plant medicine—are we after a talisman, or the real thing? Are we actually trying to improve, or do we just want to make ourselves feel better for a second? Do we just want to do something, and really anything will do?
There is a time and place for both strategies, but, of course, the Stoics would favor focusing on doing the real work—on deeds, not just words. They wouldn’t want you to settle for letting yourself off the hook, for simply indulging in some symbolic gesture or tiny consolation. They’d want you to do the real, uncomfortable work on yourself, or on the world around you.
The training we’re doing as Stoics is not easy. It’s not a matter of reading one book. It’s not about signing up for an email or buying a coin. It’s an ongoing process. It’s committing to the hard path. It’s committing to a way of life.
It’s about doing the work. This morning. This evening. Tomorrow. Right this very moment.
P.S. This was originally sent on January 14, 2021. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.