Mar 24th, 2020
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It’s now clear that we’re living in uncertain and unprecedented times. With the coronavirus stretching it’s reach around the world it’s becoming clearer with every new headline that the world we live in is undergoing a shift that will shape generations to come.
The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus once remarked that “Circumstances don't make the man, they only reveal him to himself.” In this same way it would be correct to say that global challenge reveals humanity to itself. The kind of global unrest seen at this time is of the sort that breaks down paradigms and reveals to us what’s real and what’s fake, what matters and what doesn’t, what’s worth pursuing and what we can leave aside. We’re living in a time where millions of people will be out of work soon if they aren’t already, governments are debating spending trillions of dollars to keep the economies of the world flowing, and collectively we are being forced into a position where we all need to ask ourselves how we should act in this specific situation and also how we should act moving forward into the rest of this decade which, I assure you, will hold a great deal more challenges than what we’ve seen so far in just the first three months. Ultimately what we’re seeing now is a global shift in consciousness far greater than any of us have seen in our lifetimes, and I think that possibly the most important question to ask at the moment is this: what’s been missing, and therefore what must be rediscovered?
For those who are philosophically inclined, these questions aren’t simply stored away for that rainy day or for that global pandemic. Rather, these questions are a part of everyday life. In fact, the Stoic philosopher Seneca once suggested that the budding student of philosophy should do for his mind what the soldier does for his body in times of peace, and that is to rehearse the very horror he hopes to be prepared for, to learn what makes him healthy and what makes him ill, and to exercise those things within his control so that when tragedy strikes he can confidently say, “I knew”. See, the serious student of philosophy may not be surprised by times like these, but rather he might be glad to find that his training has paid off. And this isn’t to say that he wouldn’t experience hardship or difficulties. He may have his fair share of troubles to deal with, but what he wouldn’t say is that he didn’t know. This knowledge brings strength.
One particular exercise that the student of philosophy might engage in is that of experiencing the world from an outsider's perspective, so that instead of being a mere player in the game, or being played by the game (whichever side you take on the free will debate), he can stand back and watch the game from afar with the hope that he might come back having learned some of the rules, because as Seneca also said, “if you don't know which port you are sailing to, no wind is favourable.”
In a way, we’re all outsiders looking in and interpreting what we see, and we know this because there are as many different ways of conceptualising the world as there are people to conceptualise it, but maybe as an exercise in exploring your ability to reframe your perception you could imagine yourself watching from a different angle. Just for a moment, imagine you’re watching a kind of nature documentary about the most intelligent animals on this planet - humans. Watch from a safe distance and view the scenes of this wonderful tribal animal wandering the earth, creating settlements, towns, and eventually cities. Watch as they develop new ideas, new technologies, and new ways of adapting to the ever changing landscape of their ecosystem. They develop science, philosophy, mathematics, languages, music, art, culture, political systems, economic systems, businesses, organisations, social networks, and numerous devices designed to make life supposedly easier for themselves. When you look at humanity like this it can be absolutely exhilarating, and if you view the human race not over years but over centuries or even millennia, you might conclude that what we’ve managed to achieve over this time is absolutely and undoubtedly breathtaking.
If, while you’re watching this documentary of humanity, you are studious enough to look for patterns, which might be best described in this case as “rules of the game”, then you might notice that humanity as a whole has one fatal flaw, as any magnificent entity or hero must have. Our flaw is that despite our seemingly infinite potential, our relentless forward progress, and our unwavering commitment to the expansion of our knowledge, we are still bound by the powerful laws of nature that brought us into being and that will eventually wear us down so that we may be repurposed and recycled back into the cosmos from which we came. Our own vulnerability can seem at times to be disheartening, but from an outsider's perspective looking in this vulnerability is not only uncomfortably real, but it’s undeniably built into the game of life for the benefit of the whole. It’s a rule that governs us. A rule that tends to pop up from time to time so that it can remind us of its presence whenever we would seem to have forgotten it, kind of like an unlucky card drawn at a time when we’re at a peak in our performance. And in those times when we have forgotten it, the times when our ego has led us to believe that we’re unstoppable, the documentary of humanity shows us for what we really are - a herd of wildebeest galloping away from a lion in the grass. Real threat, real herd-driven panic, and a stark reminder that this patch of grass that we inhabit is not as safe as our imagination led us to believe.
We, as the herd of humanity, have seen a lion in the grass. We’ve spotted our vulnerability. People are confused, threatened, and uncertain of what the future holds. This makes them scared, and rightly so. But always remember that no good documentary would show a scene like this without both sides putting up a good fight. See, the herd as a whole may be in a fit of panic, but there’s always a few wildebeest with the courage to turn and face the lion. These outliers know the rules of the game, and they therefore know that if enough of the herd could awaken from their panic and turn to face the threat then together they would be stronger than they would be if they remained in their own little worlds of self-interested survival instincts. And this is why it’s necessary that we’re vulnerable. In times when we seem to think that we write the rules, things tend to happen that remind us of the fact that the rules have already been written. And when these things happen, there are two kinds of people. There are those who knew the rules and those who didn’t. And remember that I’m not talking about political rules, economic rules, or social rules. These rules change all the time. I’m talking about human rules, natural rules, the kind that never change. The kind that the Stoic philosopher Zeno once suggested that we should align ourselves with. The ones that theologians have studied for thousands of years. The ones that philosophers and seekers have been learning since the human species could see, speak and understand.
But what if you’re looking at the world crashing down around you and you feel that you fall into the category of those who didn’t know the rules? What if you’re quickly descending into anxiety and the panic of the herd? Well, a wise man once said that when you’re watching a movie and things are descending into chaos, keep your eyes on the hero. Watch the person who faces the villain head on. This is your ideal. This is the “get out of jail free” card that allows us to move beyond our moment of suffering and start the game over with a fresh understanding of what is essential in this game of life. And if you think about it, this is an incredible loophole in the game. We’re vulnerable beyond measure as individuals, but when more people look to the heroes in times of need then as individuals we can all aim higher together, become stronger together, and transcend the suffering of life together as a community and as one human race.
So in these uncertain times, look to the heroes and the people who seem to know the rules. Look to the doctors and nurses who bravely show up day and night to help those who are more vulnerable than most. Look to the aged care workers who show love and care for the very people who paved the way before us and who are all too often forgotten. Look to the people of Italy who are transcending their own suffering by playing music from the balconies and uniting with one another through the power of culture. Look to the calm, rational, and thoughtful voices in our society who are simply controlling what they can control. And look to the people who calmly act as leaders, ushering the herd into a new understanding and a new way of being. These people are not always the loudest, and they’re not always the ones shouting panic from the rooftops, but when you understand the rules of the game then you find that these are the people who help the team, the herd, the logos, to win. Focus on them, emulate them and aim higher. Don’t pay attention to those who are still trapped in the paradigm of dividers and conquerors. Don’t give any time to those who cannot see that we’re all in this together and that the action of the one affects the journey of the many. Focus on those who unite, help, give, share, love, and strive. These are the people who understand the rules.
And finally, if you can’t find anyone like this, then look to the people throughout history who transcended their own suffering and in doing so lifted many others out of theirs. Look to people like Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who understood that he was a human first and emperor second. He wrote; “No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”
Find inspiration in people like Lao Tsu who shared one of the most mysterious and exquisite guides to life in the Tao Te Ching. He wrote; “Those who are good I treat as good. Those who are not good I treat as good. In doing so I gain in goodness. Those who are of good faith I have faith in. Those who are lacking in good faith I also have faith in. In doing so I gain in good faith.”
Turn to the words of Seneca who deconstructed our conception of the value of time by writing that “life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”
Return to the words of Jesus, who said “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Or be inspired by the wise teachings of Muhammad who wrote that “four things support the world: the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the good, and the valor of the brave.”
And finally, turn to even more modern thinkers who are calmly deciphering the rules of life. I turn to people like Sharon Lebell, who recently wrote about these uncertain times and offered her interpretation of the Stoic idea of “alignment with Nature.” She said; “I take living in accordance with nature as an injunction to remember and return to wonder, to which we always have access. To reduce panic, get outside in nature itself. Nature abides, regenerates, and flourishes despite plagues, cancer, war, or Covid 19. And it irrepressibly conjures “senseless” beauty, order, symmetry, and grace. All of these things are enduring and true. They are just as, if not more, real and important than the panic that has overtaken so many. Remember, panic is more contagious and more virulent than any physical virus.”
As you turn to these dedicated philosophical explorers I know that a sense of calm will follow, if only for the fact that you’re not alone. These questions of what it means to be a human have perplexed human beings ever since we became self-aware, and we will likely remain perplexed, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find clues along the way. Why else would we find truths in so many places? As Seneca once said, “Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.”
So I ask you this. If nature is what creates us, and culture is what shapes us, then won’t it surely be philosophy that will guide us from here? Philosophy is the teacher that tends to have our back when nature and culture are correcting themselves. It’s the guide that helps us to see when we’re working against ourselves. It’s the guide that only ever gives, and never asks anything in return. It is simply wonder, exploration, and the ultimate question of what it is that we’re all doing here. As Epictetus put it, “we become philosophers to discover what is really true and what is merely the accidental result of flawed reasoning, recklessly acquired erroneous judgements, well-intentioned but misguided teachings of parents and teachers, and unexamined acculturation. To ease our souls' suffering, we engage in disciplined introspection in which we conduct thought experiments to strengthen our ability to distinguish between wholesome and lazy, hurtful beliefs and habits.”
So during these difficult times, dedicate yourself to philosophy. And I don’t only mean to read the books. Even Marcus Aurelius once remarked to himself that he should throw away the books so that he could stop being distracted. No, when I suggest that we should dedicate ourselves to philosophy I mean that we should once again return to attention, to wonder, to consideration, and to now. Pay attention to what’s really important to you, under the surface. Dig a little deeper and ask the right questions. What’s important to you? What matters? What doesn’t matter? How much of your life have you spent in meaningless quarrels? How much of your time do you spend chasing outcomes that ultimately make no tangible difference to you or the people you love? If you could do anything you wanted for the rest of your life, what would you do? How much of your life are you willing to spend in existential hell before you wake up and set your aim at learning the rules? And what makes you think that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be the hero who leads your family, your friends, or your community through these times of unprecedented anxiety? Dedicate yourself to the most important questions of life and move to a place of mental fortitude, calm, strength and reasonable caution. Like I’ve said before, the 20s is going to be no place for weak minds. Now more than ever we’re in need of reasonable voices to help more people through the sludge of modern life. Help your fellow citizens by allowing this unsavoury plate that fate has dealt us to shape you into your most powerful and aware self. In this way you’ll truly be living for yourself while simultaneously living for the entirety of the human race.