I read The Daily Stoic book by Ryan Holiday around a year ago. It changed my perception of reality with the very first page:
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that focuses on practical life instead of theoretical questions. It is concerned with everyday life and does not concern itself about the stars, heaven, hell, etc. That is what I found remarkable about this philosophy.
This was immediately apparent when my car broke down. I dropped my daughter to preschool and when I came back to the parking lot, the car wouldn’t start! Immediately, I was frustrated. This is the part where I would usually curse a lot and mutter “waste of time”, blah blah.
This time, I did something different. I quickly shut down that line of thinking. I thought “What’s the Stoic way?” – as the first page indicates, the principle is simple:
“If you cannot change something, move on.
If you can change something, decide what you want to do about it, and move on.
There is no reason for anger.”
So I calmed down quickly and asked myself “What is the next right action?”. “Duh, call AAA (roadside assistance).”
So I did that – they came in an hour (I listened to a podcast in the meanwhile), analyzed that the battery had died, they called for a flatbed truck, where they loaded the car onto it, and dropped us off at the nearby service center, and then I walked back home.
Things that I was actually happy about after this incident:
- I’m glad the car broke down when I was driving, and not when my wife was driving. She would have panicked and I would have been 60 km away in San Francisco and won’t be able to arrive quickly enough to help.
- I’m glad the car broke down when it was parked, not when I was driving.
- My daughter and her friends were excited on seeing a flatbed truck and seeing how a car is loaded onto it. The truck driver honked at the kids and they ran around the playground to see the truck drive by. The kids talked about it for weeks!
- I didn’t really miss anything at work. I had to attend one meeting, which I connected via phone and was listening in when I was walking home.
Other than spending money on a new battery (which would’ve been inevitable), I thought to myself – that this was not a bad situation!
This comes back to another Stoic principle:
Things are not good or bad. It’s our perception (impression) of things that make it good or bad!
Stoicism takes it one step further by turning the obstacle upside down:
If you can properly turn a problem upside down, every “bad” becomes a new source of good.
Suppose for a second that you are trying to help someone and they respond by being surly or unwilling to cooperate. Instead of making your life more difficult, the exercise says, they’re actually directing you towards new virtues; for example, patience or understanding. Or, the death of someone close to you; a chance to show fortitude.
Marcus Aurelius described it like this:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
I had benefitted from the book so much (which explains many more principles and ideas than what I mentioned here), and was so thankful to the author, that when I read that Ryan Holiday was doing a book tour for his new book “Conspiracy”, I went to get his autograph:
Only those who make time for philosophy are truly alive. — Ryan Holiday
This reminded me of: