Finding Meaning In Our Suffering: What The Stoics Can Teach Us About Tragedy, Loss, and Pandemics

The Stoics, like everyone who has walked this earth, were not unfamiliar with suffering. It was a fact of life in Rome just as it is a fact today. Marcus Aurelius’ reign, while he was loved by the people of Rome, was anything but easy. Wars, political rebellions, economic collapse, and pandemics all tested his fortitude. To say that Epictetus struggled early on in life would be a preposterous understatement: the first three decades were spent in harsh, unrelenting slavery. He would bear the scars of it forever. 

Even the more contemporary Stoics, such as Viktor Frankl and James Stockdale were both forced to embody Stoicism when their lives took unexpected turns. They suffered just as you suffer. They struggled, just as you struggle now. 

Because life isn’t fair. Because it’s hard. Because bad things happen. 

But what was special about the Stoics is that it is in precisely these difficult times that they managed to shine. It was from this adversity that they derived great meaning. James Stockdale would say that in those seven years he spent in a horrible prisoner of war camp, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Ok. Wow. So how do we do that? How do we bear the weight of suffering and use it to find meaning in our lives? With those questions in mind, here are four Stoic strategies for finding meaning in times of suffering. 

Put Your Energy Towards Helping Others

“if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.” Epictetus

It’s important to understand that the Stoics weren’t better coaches than they were players—they lived the philosophy they preached. Epictetus, who emphasized understanding the difference between what we can and can’t control, had no choice but to accept the uncontrollable. Born into slavery, Epictetus had no choice over his circumstances. Even his name, Epíktitos, is greek for “acquired”. He would endure a slave’s life for most of his formative years, before being freed by his master, who was a secretary to Emperor Nero. Despite the harsh conditions of his upbringing, Epictetus continued to study philosophy. He would become a master of Stoic thought, expanding his ideas far and wide until his name became synonymous with the philosophy itself. Epictetus took the adversity fate handed him and transformed it into an opportunity to help others. He turned his trials into triumph. This very idea is the foundation of Stoic thought and, of course, the inspiration for The Obstacle Is The Way

Crises cause us to think only of ourselves—how we’re affected, what we will do to survive. But it’s important to remember that the entire world is experiencing the same thing. In Book Six of Meditations, Marcus gives himself (and us) a command to keep an important idea in mind. “Meditate often,” he writes, “on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” He is speaking of the Stoic concept of Sympatheia, the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.” The same rules still apply in trying to navigate the unknown terrain of COVID-19. During this time, as Marcus suggests, we ought to continue this affinity for one another. We have to help each other and be kind to one another. When everything feels like it’s falling apart, Sympatheia will provide us with meaning. 

For so many, the pandemic we face feels hopeless. But when we feel anxious about the rising number of cases around the globe, when we feel stir crazy and long to see our friends and family again, we must refocus our energy to helping others. Remember that no matter how dire the situation, no matter how seemingly futile it feels to remain optimistic and kind, we must always remember our interconnectedness and duty we owe to others. In prioritizing the way we treat those who are going through the same thing, we provide ourselves with the meaning necessary to keep pushing on. 

Be Grateful For What You Have Left

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor Frankl

It’s tragic that so many of us fail to fully recognize the value of something until it is no longer in our possession. We take for granted that which we presently have, and constantly desire that which we do not. Even Viktor Frankl, who spent three years witnessing horrible atrocities at Auschwitz and Dachau, acknowledged that he too, took for granted the little things. In tough times, it’s the little things that give us the meaning necessary to keep going.

There’s an iconic scene in Man’s Search For Meaning where Frankl is engaged in hard labor by a railroad. Thick snow is pounding the prisoners who are already under-clothed, malnourished and utterly exhausted. Hours and hours go by, as Nazi officers beat several prisoners for working too slowly, including Frankl. In this moment of extreme suffering, Frankl begins to daydream about his wife. It wasn’t major moments in their relationship he thought of, though. It was the little things: her smile, the way her hair fell to her shoulders, her laugh. All of these traits, while they were appreciated and admired in those moments, provided Frankl with the will to continue living despite his desolation. 

In times of suffering, we’re all guilty of focusing more on what we lack rather than what we already have. We complain instead of feeling gratitude for the things we have not yet lost. Marcus Aurelius also knew the danger of complaining, when we wrote “How does it help… to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?” The tendency to take things for granted doesn’t mean that we’re bad people, but this perspective certainly doesn’t serve us well amidst a global pandemic. Like Frankl found meaning in the memory of his wife, you have to find meaning in every moment as well. Each day that you wake up in quarantine, be grateful for your health. Be grateful for the opportunity to spend more time with your family, as thousands of people have already lost their loved ones to the virus. See each day as a gift, and meaning will ensue. 

Look For Beauty Everywhere

“We should remember that even Nature’s inadvertence has its own charm, its own attractiveness. The way loaves of bread split open on top in the oven; the ridges are just by-products of the baking, and yet pleasing, somehow: they rouse our appetite without our knowing why. Or how ripe figs begin to burst. And olives on the point of falling: the shadow of decay gives them a peculiar beauty” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In the face of a virus like COVID-19, which is rapidly spreading and carries with it severe economic consequences, it’s easy to think that’s all there is—that nothing good is happening. But the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Despite the widespread panic and growing case numbers, there’s still plenty of good going on. Fortune 500 companies are refocusing their factories to manufacture personal protective gear for frontline responders. Air pollution is at an all-time low, and the sky has never looked this serene and clear. Even in this nightmare of a health crisis, there is still beauty to be seen

One of the greatest examples of finding beauty despite one’s circumstances comes from legendary American Businessman and inventor Thomas Edison. The story goes that Edison, aged sixty-seven at the time, was about to eat dinner when a man rushed to his home. The man would inform Edison that there was a large fire burning at Edison’s factory. Edison arrived at his factory accompanied by his son. He watched as, what many would categorize as his life’s work, burn to ashes before his very eyes. One would assume that Edison would break from an incident like this. Most people would—but not him. How did Edison respond? By turning to his son, and uttering “Go and get your mother and all of her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” It wasn’t any kind of delusion or shock that caused Edison to react so calmly. It was his well-trained perception, his ability to see opportunity through the flames.  

Marcus Aurelius too was challenged with finding beauty in the darkest places. On the front lines of the war campaign in Germania, Marcus managed to find beauty in the flecks of foam on a boar’s mouth, in the brow of a lion, and in the way a ripe olive falls to the ground. With time and what we assume to be hours and hours of reflection in the journal we now call Meditations, Marcus developed his perspective enough to see through the nightmare around him, to concentrate on peace when everyone else saw chaos. 

Everyone holds this same power. Everyone can find beauty and meaning in life at any given moment. 

Make Your Ancestors Proud

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” — Greek Proverb

Think about the life your parents have lived thus far. Think about the trials and tribulations they’ve overcome—the suffering they’ve endured. Now think about your grandparents. Go as far back in your family tree as memory or research will allow. If you keep going, you’ll notice that suffering does not skip a generation like a genetic disease. It is ever-present for all who have lived and are living currently. 

We ought to keep in mind the wise words of philosopher George Santayana, that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. While the quote is often used to speak about history in general, it is just as applicable to the modern Stoic. If we fail to learn from our ancestors and those who came before us, like Marcus, Epictetus, Seneca, and the rest…we’re doing them a disservice. We’re not making them proud in the same way that their discoveries make us proud today. 

Our goal during the pandemic, and for the remainder of our lives should be to plant trees for those who will come after us, and make the world a little bit better off than the way we found it. 

The next time you feel discouraged by the condition of suffering, remember to put your energy towards helping others. Remember to be grateful for what you have. Remember to see the beauty in everything. Most of all, remember to make your ancestors proud. It was they, who overcame great obstacles and found meaning in the suffering. 

And now, so can you. 

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Related:

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Remember: You Don’t Control What Happens, You Control How You Respond

Daily Stoic Podcast: Ryan Holiday & Tim Ferriss Discuss “Alive Time vs Dead Time”

Ask Daily Stoic: Ryan and John Brownstein Discuss the Science Behind the Pandemic

Understanding And Responding To Natural Catastrophe: An Interview With Anthony Long

 

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