3 Ways Stoicism Can Help Us Thrive in Today’s Turbulent Political Times

This is a guest post by Monil Shah. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the publication.


Two years ago, if you asked me anything about politics, or, about what my opinions were about a particular leader, I would shrug the question off; I didn’t care, because none of it affected my life personally.

Enter – Trump.

I am not a US born citizen. I’m just an international student whose worked extremely hard to go to college in this country and dream of becoming a part of this family one day. And so, even when I started my life here four years ago, I didn’t care about policies, until 2017, when things started changing for my international friends and I.

First, it was the way we were treated differently in different places. The phrase “go back to your country” started becoming normal during Friday and Saturday nights in bars, at certain places in town. And then, something that impacted us the most – jobs.

Ever since the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order was signed, getting a job as an international student became extremely difficult. So much so, while filling a job application online, if you clicked “Yes” on “Will you, now or in the future, require visa sponsorship”, you wouldn’t even be able to upload your Resume to the application.

While everyone else enjoys going home to their families, some of us, who are keen to make this place home are forced to stay back and keep hunting for jobs, keep fighting the system, one, that, it seems like is designed now to be against us.

That is just my struggle. Whether or not you’re going through the same battle, in times like this, the questions needs to be asked – how can be maintain sanity? How can we survive? Or even, thrive when our leaders and their supporters seem to neglect folks with different passports/ opinions/ beliefs/ values?

Stoicism.

Here are three ways Stoicism is helping me (and can help us) thrive during such times.


#1 Circle of Control

As Epictetus said –The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.

Applying this philosophy – No matter how much I rant about it to my social media circle, I cannot change policies, it’s simply not in my control. However, despite what nationality an employer prefers to hire, I can keep working on myself.  Fortunately, learning and working on my skills doesn’t require anyone’s permission. In a very real sense, I can make myself more useful by picking up a new skill, learning a new language, and/ or keep practicing on my current skills.

No one’s signature can stop me from becoming a better version of myself.

Similarly, it’s important to ask yourself the same question – regardless of whether or not you’re going through a similar situation, what can you do that can contribute to your well-being, in a time when, it seems like, the world is coming crashing down?

Here are just three ideas:

– Practice your opinions: It’s ridiculously easy to form opinions today, but, ask yourself this – are you really putting in the work to have an opinion? Instead of complaining about why a particular policy or healthcare plan is bad (just because everyone is doing so and it seems fun to join in the rant), have you really studied it? Have you sat down with a pen and paper and critically understood why it’s bad? Have you done the required reading, debated with folks who have a different belief, analyzed how it has impacted lives, before forming an opinion? If not, it’s time to do that. Here’s a good start.

– Rethink your motivations: Before we complain about how horrible certain policies/people are, or, why immigrants are making it harder for you to get a job, it’s essential to ask what your motivations are. That is – what the fuck do you want out of life ?  What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in one year? Five Years? What are you doing, everyday, to get to where you want to go? And, of course – if you don’t know where you want to go, how are you experimenting? Are you applying gentle curiosity to your life? History has given us examples of folks who’ve come out on top and inspired us, despite faulty, or even fatal leaders, so, no political leader or policy can stop you from becoming the best version of yourself. You, fortunately, control your motivations and desires.

– Realize your true desires: Politics, for most us, is very engaging. If you don’t believe me, go look at anyone of the thousand comments folks put in on opinionated articles. But, have you stopped to ask yourself why, for instance, does it bother you when someone has a different belief or opinion than you? Developing self-knowledge is something fully in our control, so, instead of wasting so much time and energy and wishing for things to be different, why can’t we meditate on our rather bizarre hope that everything goes our way? You’re not a republican, democrat or liberal. You’re a homo sapien that has so much to give, learn, and discover. One way to start on this journey is to Journal.

#2 Kindness

This goes for both sides, whether or not you’re a Trump supporter, the typical way we interact with folks who’re different than us is by dehumanizing them. We call them names, bouncing on hate instead of staying in love.

How can we even begin to accept different perspectives if we’re so stuck with being right, with posting yet another article about how a group of Trump Supporters did something, which makes them very racist?

Have a cousin or family member who has a different perspective then you? Who, for some reason, does not like diversity? Don’t avoid them. Show them some kindness, interact with them, really listen to what they have to say.  Dr David Campt (“The Dialogue Guy”), a renowned expert in the areas of inclusivity has developed the “White Ally Toolkit”, which can help folks have a productive and compassionate conversation about race with their anti racism friends.

You can read more about it here, but, it’s gist involves acknowledging that individuals who despite a certain color, don’t do it out of hate, but rather assumptions and biases, which were developed due to personal life experiences. So, instead of shunning them out and hoping for a new political leader to change everything, try to be the change yourself. Have a conversation, listen, reflect, and connect.

As Seneca said – “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness”, let the stoic in you encourage you to extend that hand. At the end of the day, all we’ve really needed and will need in the future is some kindness and compassion.

#3 Gratitude

During times like these, we often fail to acknowledge and appreciate the good things. Our inclination is to complain about how everything is horrible, somehow expecting that weekly rants on social media will fix anything.

As bad as it gets, we need to remind ourselves of a universal fact – that, things, whether we believe it or not, could always be worse.

Hans Rosling (1948-2017) stated this phenomenon perfectly in his book Factfullness

“Think about the world. War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”

The reason why most of us find it so hard to be grateful is quite simple – we’re just focused on our lives. As soon as we face an obstacle in  whatever we’re pursuing, we try to find ways to blame it to external events. What we need instead is some space – so, we can understand two things with clarity: first, that, on a universal level, things could not have been better. Life expectancy is rising, child mortality is falling, and more and more people and living in democracies. Yes, of course, things can always be better and there are always exceptions, climate change is getting worse, but, overall, we’re doing much better.

If you ever need a reminder of that, here’s a great resource which gives you an accurate picture of the world today through numbers, not fear.

Second, only once we realize, accept and acknowledge our gratefulness, can we finally get some headspace to step-back and  think about how we can make things better. As Stoics, we’re in it for the long game, we know that if we want to make any long-lasting change, it will require a sustained and strategic effort. This school of philosophy, for instance, will teach us that instead of commenting on things we’re opposed to, we can spend time studying particular issues and why they’re significant, and also what we can do as individuals to move the needle.

Instead of ranting on social media or fighting in rallies, we will think of better ways to solve modern problems.

Over To You

America is going through some very interesting times right now, and regardless of whether you support the change or not, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, only we can control our individual characters, only we can make sure we’re making a difference by doing our jobs creatively, with curiosity, and only we, whether you believe it or not, can show kindness.

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