The One Important Lesson From Ancient Philosophy That Changed Me Forever

 

“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of it’s thoughts” 

— Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations 

In college, when I walked into my first Philosophy lecture, I didn’t realize that my life would change forever. I wanted answers. I became obsessed with the idea of living a better life. I read about philosophers who have spent years, even decades, pondering the complexities of leading a good one. Their books aren’t written in 140 character bytes, but to dismiss them would be folly.

In high school though, it was clubs, late-nights, and partying. Lots of it. And with an elite private school, high expectations, and a world-famous academic father, I crumbled under the pressure to perform academically. I gave up, and for most of my teenage years, I had a creeping sense of stagnation that stayed with me, even later.

But stop. This is just a story I’m telling you.

Life has so much more nuance and texture than the narrative I just wove you. No matter how much I explain, you’ll never grasp the visceral and tumultuous experience that was my high school. Not even me. Memory is like sand running through your fingers, the missing grains constantly being reconstructed. At the end, all you remember is flashes and what you told yourself. You remember only what you’ve chosen to remember. Words, sentences, and stories are all you have.

And that’s why stories matter. What you tell yourself about what your life is, matters. The Stoics recognized that the thoughts that run in your head, run you.

This isn’t pointless intellectual pontification. This is realizing that your life will be different if you change how you frame it. Are you unlucky, beset with setbacks at every turn? Or are you resilient, bouncing back with greater vigor and strength in the face of adversity? These are the narratives. These are the stories.

What do you tell yourself?

Because no matter how much objectivity you try to live by, we can only see the world through our own narrative. Even when you touch, feel, and see, you never get the full picture. Your memory is always pruning, always reconstructing, always changing what things mean. You can see the world through your own glasses but the truth is that you can never take them off. Stories are all that we have and the only thing we’ll ever have. It’s the tapestry of our lives.

And for all the gadgets and wizardry of modernity, the human experience hasn’t changed. Heartbreak, cruelty, boredom, poverty – whatever ails us, still does. It may come in different guises, sure, but we still have to deal with them.

I’ve taken bad things that have happened to me and turned them around to my benefit because I told myself a different story. Most of us have grown up living at the mercy of our first reactions. But things can be different; how you see and act, can be changed.

Say you lose your job. Now, while you try to find one, you now have the chance to write a screenplay, cultivate a gym habit, go on more dates and reassess your career. Maybe before, you were complacent. Now, you have the ability to work on figuring out a better way to support yourself. Trying to make ends meet? Now, as you’re working a part-time gig, you gain the ability, work-ethic, and confidence to earn money in tough times. Maybe your boss walked all over you? Now, you get a chance to practice assertiveness with your new one. Does the job search feel never ending? Now, practice patience.

Problems become a chance for us to gain new, small, at times, even big skills we wouldn’t have before. And to see the gift, all it takes is a little mental flexibility. Every story you weave can either be self-pity or self-growth. Yes, adversity is adversity while you’re going through it. I guarantee you no one with struggles is telling their friends, “but hey, at least I’ll be stronger for it!”. In high school, I might not have had a great start. At times, I failed. But it was that slow start that fueled my college years. And it was my college struggles that fueled early adulthood and beyond. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

When times are tough, when you face a struggle, ask yourself: What if this was a gift? And then, figure out a way to make it so.

 

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