There is one specific idea which I have found to be incredibly useful when confronting and accepting various forms of pain, specifically the pains and anxieties of everyday life: the concept of sub specie aeternatis. This is the idea of viewing humanity, and more specifically your very own life, in the time period of all history and of the future as well. The span of our own lives is utterly negligible if we look at the big picture-that the universe has existed for millions and millions of years, and will probably continue to do so for a long time. Looking at life like this, all the pettiness is removed. When we are reminded of our own insignificance and the perhaps completely meaningless nature of our troubles, w may be able to detach ourselves from our own trouble, thereby gaining power and control over them, rather than the other way around. It is a matter of recognising how arbitrary everything can seem, merely by looking at the bigger picture. It may seem simple, but its effect may be astounding.
The opinion of others is something that is usually heralded as crucially important to any sane person, and what others think about us has become the reason for acting in certain ways-for getting that job, for posting that photo on Instagram, for buying that car, or for keeping quiet when we should speak up. We value others’ opinions highly, and what other people will think about us influences our decisions heavily. It’s not that other people’s opinions do not matter (they do), but it may be the case that we value what other people think too highly. It is a problem when we do not act in the way we should or the way we truly want because we fear what other people will think. It is a problem when we act solely so that people will think good of us, regardless of what we genuinely want to do. We make the mistake that if people have a good opinion of us, our power will increase, as will our satisfaction. This kind of deluded thinking has the opposite effect, since relying on the external for power and satisfaction usually means the opposite occurs, since most people do not care what you think or do. With this kind of thinking, whether we are satisfied is up to other people-we are completely powerless. Acting how you think you should, and realising true power comes only from within will result in more control, and, most likely, more satisfaction. We need to stop caring about what other people think. It makes us powerless and weak, stopping us from speaking when we should, doing what we truly want, and being the person we want to be. Ceasing to care what others think will result in liberation-liberation from anxiety, as well as liberation from the mask that we all wear around each other, a mask that prevents us from being ourselves. Take off the mask, and be free.
The concept of the will to power is more apparent today perhaps more than ever before. This is clear from the prevalence of social media. The majority of social networks are founded upon this principle of will to power, and social media taps into our will for power-it is what draws us in. Power is the reason photos are posted on Instagram and why videos are posted on Snapchat. The question is not whether social media appeals to people because of the supposed power it claims it brings (that is obvious), but whether we should partake in it or not. Another question is whether it is possible to avoid our will to power-is, for example, the denial to use social media just another form of the will to power because one believes that abstaining from social networks brings power with it? We must ask ourselves whether we want to fight for power, to (perhaps pointlessly) strive for attention and recognition. No, it cannot be. It is not that we should try to abstain from the will to power, for this may not even be possible, but to come to realise the best way to attain power-from within. Social media fools us by baiting us to look for power from people other than our own selves. By posting photos and videos with the hope that people will see them and think better of you or be jealous of you, that is not a sign of power, it is a sign of weakness. Social media relies on you relentlessly caring about the opinions and thoughts of others. Power can be attained, but not through the external. Real power comes from within, realising that we don’t need the recognition of others to remain in a serene state.
Lingering inside our own heads is a habit which is, at least in the world of work and commute, becoming less and less common. On the way to work adverts are everywhere, telling us how to think and pulling us away from entertaining any thoughts of our own. Phones and other devices enable us to distract ourselves from our minds, also controlling our stream of thought. Little opportunity is there for quiet and distraction-free time just to live inside our own head and explore the vast extent of our own selves. Real time alone is becoming more and more scarce, and it is harder, in a world obsessed with haste and getting as much done as quickly as possible, just to stop and sit in a quiet room. Why is it, though, that Pascal says that all men’s miseries stem from this? Not only does sitting in a quiet room enable us to explore ourselves, but it also provides time for deliberating upon our troubles and contemplating the generally trivial nature of our misery. Without this time, we are unable to separate ourselves from our problems, and thereby we become deeply engrossed and entrenched by our problems, simply because we do not distance ourselves from them, something that can easily be done through simple quiet thought. Sparing time for this basic yet effective action is crucial for dealing with life’s troubles, and gives us time to reflect, a thing which might at first seem scary, yet is on all accounts necessary.
Everybody says they want to be free. In the west, freedom is a value which is viciously fought for and supported, yet the freedom we talk of so highly is, in practice, not so sought after as it may at first seem. All around us are things which tells us what to think in the form of advertising, telling us that this is what makes you happy, this is what makes you feel free. The feeds of social media are also places of a certain slavery, in which we are told what to think, who to follow and how to think. The television, our phones, our shopping centres, all of these are places proclaiming and heralding false freedom. These are mediums which tell us-‘look here, if you do this, buy this, watch this, you’ll be free and you’ll be happy’. We consequently believe them and gradually we become hooked on these actions, and what we once thought would make us free now holds us down as a slave caught in an addiction. We say we want freedom, but the way we act suggests we desire quite the opposite. Another form of this rejection of freedom seems to be religion, an organization which likewise says that following the religion will lead to some form of happiness and freedom, be it redemption, salvation or satisfaction. The problem with both of these is that they are things outside of ourselves-they are external to us. We make the fundamental mistake of thinking that freedom will come from something out in the world, when in fact genuine freedom comes from the internal-within yourself. It may come in the form of detachment or the recognition of what is in your control and what is not or the way in which you prepare for and deal with loss and suffering, because once we find a fool proof way of dealing with suffering, then true satisfaction can come, and the only way that works effectively at all is in your own mind. I can’t just tell you this. The only way is to discover this for yourself. And why is it that we fear freedom so much? Because of the responsibility it brings, the unknowns it will show, and the fear of becoming lost. Yet, if we prepare ourselves, we can find freedom, within ourselves, and from there recognise that we will not become lost but we will rather find something worthwhile and good.
Anxiety is rampant today, and about 40 million people have some kind of anxiety, be it generalised anxiety, social anxiety or another form of which there are many. Anxiety can, of course, be brought on and triggered by many different things, such as an overuse of drugs, addiction, highly embarrassing or stressful situations, or traumatic life events. Given that it is such a great problem today, it is necessary to address it and attempt to offer some solutions to this great problem.
A common technique of battling anxiety is the use of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), a technique invented by Albert Ellis, and in fact Ellis used the ideas of Stoicism to form his main ideas about CBT, particularly the thought of Epictetus, and so it is he which we will focus on here.
Anxiety, Epictetus argues, is something that arises when we desire what is beyond our control. He uses the example of a lyre player-he is only anxious about performing in front of a crowd because he wants to win the approval of the audience, something which is beyond his control. Again, we are anxious because of our great concern for the external, rather than the internal. We wish to control what is beyond our choice and power, and our reliance on the external, especially the opinions of others, is what causes us to be anxious. How do we deal with this then? Epictetus says that like a doctor diagnosing a problem with someone’s liver, one should say that a person has a problem with his desire and aversion, and that it is this which is causing anxiety. Anxiety, it seems, arises from trying to control things we cannot.
Some might say that anxiety is innate, and runs through the core of our being. We are human, and so we just are anxious. It’s a part of our nature. To a certain extent this may be true, yet there is certainly an unhealthy amount of anxiety among many people, and it is this which causes problems. We must first confront anxiety and understand whence it comes-the desire to control things we cannot. After this understanding, we must practice and train ourselves to be less anxious by actually putting ourselves in potentially anxiety inducing situations and trying to deal with them more effectively each and every time.