“To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.” — Marcus Aurelius
The question of why and how we are supposed to live has been contemplated for centuries. Absurdist Albert Camus wrote that life is like the Sisyphean task of pushing a boulder up a mountain for all of eternity. Existence itself, in other words, is persevering. Camus writes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” So, how do we persevere well? How do we persevere happily?
Thankfully, we can look to the Stoics. The Stoics not only wrote about how to persevere, they used Stoicism to persevere in the face of plagues, exiles, imprisonment, and wars.
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Drawing on the timeless wisdom of the Stoics, we created this guide to give you a time-tested playbook to help you persevere. This is a long post. It should be saved and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section
“Ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” — Marcus Aurelius
James Stockdale was held captive in Hanoi, North Vietnam. He was sent to a war camp that was famous for its brutal treatment of prisoners.
What got him through more than 7 years of imprisonment?
Stoicism not only helped Stockdale get through his imprisonment, but it helped him refrain from betraying himself and his country. He was able to internally uphold his moral code. He accepted the fact that he could not control his external circumstances. Instead, he mastered his internal dialogue and feelings.
That is persevering. It’s not simply “getting through it.” It’s getting through it while still maintaining your morality and humanity. Stoicism does not breed apathy, but strength.
Accept your fate
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” – Epictetus
As mentioned before, hardship allows you to show your true character. So, embrace hardship. Amor Fati. Love your fate. Embrace every single moment, even moments of hell.
The chance of us existing is small, but here we are. The chances of that particular sperm fertilizing that particular egg were small. But here you are. You have already beaten seemingly insurmountable odds. Your existence is rare and beautiful. So, even our suffering is rare and beautiful.
Accepting your fate does not mean you’re necessarily okay with bad things happening to you. It means you are accepting that struggling is a part of existing. We can use this to persevere because this gives us the courage to act. Loving and appreciating every minute shows us that we are not helpless. We are just experiencing what it means to exist.
“Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.” — Marcus Aurelius
Either you persevere or you don’t. Regardless, complaining does not necessarily tip the odds in your favor. Yes, feel emotions. Yes, confide in people. But do not tell yourself you will fail. Do not tell anyone else you will fail. Don’t tell anyone that this specific struggle will be the end of you.
Complaining, in fact, makes it harder to endure. Marcus argues that you can endure anything by thinking it’s endurable. If you allow yourself to complain, you’re defeating yourself.
You may be able to get through something by complaining. But, that will not leave your good nature intact. To exercise virtue in the face of adversity, we must have control over our own minds.
Realize it’s not the end of the world
“Never say of anything, ‘I have lost it’ but, ‘I have returned it.’ Is your child dead? It is returned…Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? ‘But he who took it away is a bad man.’ What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back?” — Epictetus
Way harsh, but there’s still a lesson here. Epictetus urges us to not take things personally. Things are not taken from you, but returned. After all, the entire universe existed before us and will exist after us.
Likewise, we existed before our current struggle and will exist after it.
In the final episode of Bojack Horseman, Bojack says, “Life’s a bitch and then you die, right?” Diane responds, “Sometimes. Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you keep living.” We live despite and in spite of how much life sucks. Life won’t always be suffering, but life is contingent on suffering. When we lose an opportunity, a loved one, or when life is just bad, the best thing to do is live virtuously no matter what.
This difficulty will end. You will end. We can only control our response to that.
Don’t just sit there and take it
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” — Seneca
Seneca is reminding us that we have some control over our lives. By putting off action, we are allowing our suffering to have full control.
By working towards ending our suffering, we are regaining control. Persevering is active. We don’t persevere by shutting down until it’s over.
We persevere by responding rationally to our hardships. We persevere by determining the most virtuous course of action. Persevere immediately.
Demand better, don’t just want better
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.” — Epictetus
When we are struggling, we may want to give up on ourselves. We may settle. We may get used to things being okay and give up on striving for a good life. This is unacceptable.
Like we said, you can either persevere or stop. Either way, we are dying at some point. As Epictetus says, we can die ordinary if we choose to not persevere. Everything ends at some point, but there is power in the choice to persevere. A hardship can either end because we act to make it end or we die. We have some control over when our suffering ends.
We must demand that we get through this hardship. Clean your room a little. Ask for better treatment. Advocate for yourself and take care of yourself. We cannot get used to suffering. We can accept the existence of suffering, but we still have to fight against it. Do not become complacent.
Stop torturing yourself
“We suffer not from the events in our lives, but from our judgment about them.” — Epictetus
Perhaps our suffering is mostly self-inflicted. When difficulties arise, we sometimes take it personally. It’s important to take accountability for actions that cause suffering, but you can do that without suffering.
Instead of saying, “I lost my job because I’m lazy and stupid,” you can say, “I lost my job because I did not meet the requirements for it.” The difference between those two sentences is that one is reporting a judgment and the other is reporting a fact. We suffer less when we rationally map why things happen.
Calling ourselves stupid for letting something happen does not solve the problem and makes us feel worse. Shit usually happens purely because shit happens. Taking it personally makes it harder to actively solve the problem. Recognizing that it is not 100% our fault can give us the courage to act.
Use your resources
“Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.” – Epictetus
We enter fight or flight mode when it gets tough. However, the good thing about being humans is that we have the ability to be rational.
Don’t go into survival mode. Take a breath and remember you have the opportunity to outwardly show your virtue. Not everything needs a reaction. Moreover, not everything needs an immediate reaction.
While persevering is active, you can still take time to decide what to do. You do not need to react immediately unless it’s life or death. Let it stew.
“We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca
“In the meantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.” — Seneca
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” — Seneca
“Ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” – Marcus Aurelius
“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.” – Epictetus
“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible–and no one can keep you from this. But there will be some external obstacle! Perhaps, but no obstacle to acting with justice, self-control, and wisdom. But what if some other area of my action is thwarted? Well, gladly accept the obstacle for what it is and shift your attention to what is given, and another action will immediately take its place, one that better fits the life you are building.”- Marcus Aurelius
“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.” – Marcus Aurelius
“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.” – Marcus Aurelius
“To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.” – Epictetus
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings of a Roman Stoic by Musonius Rufus
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
Keep Going by Austin Kleon
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb