“It is the quality, rather than the quantity, that matters.” — Seneca
Stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, agoraphobia; these were not just words to me, these were feelings that drowned my everyday life for years.
I worried about worrying. I stressed about stressing. I was anxious because I was worried about having a panic attack when leaving my house.
My quality of life was that of someone in a coma. I was going through the motions of life, but I wasn’t experiencing the sensation of living.
The Beginning of the End
It hadn’t always been this way for me, but after years of domestic abuse at the hands of my first husband, a narcissist, and childhood abuse by my mother, I had been broken down, literally and figuratively.
My body and my mind were so traumatized after enduring so many years of being told I was less than, even years later, being in a healthy relationship and in what should have been a good place in my life, I still struggled to function as a person.
By November 2016, I was in the worst mental shape of my life. My brother, noticing the state of my well-being, introduced me to Stoicism.
He dealt with a lot of the same issues as me, and had been studying the philosophy and practicing it for a couple of years already at that point. He gave me a copy of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine to read and my journey began.
The Road to a Joyful Life
Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy, and being Stoic means the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety; and the presence of positive ones, such as joy.
Upon learning this, I’ll admit, I scoffed at the simplicity of the idea. I’m an intelligent person. I know that I need to remove negativity from my life and be thankful for the good things that are right in front of me. But I wasn’t actively practicing that.
I was too busy being swallowed whole by my emotions. But as I continued to study the great Stoic philosophers, something clicked: For the first time in my adult life, I realized that it was okay for me to remove toxic people and situations from my life, that it didn’t make me a selfish person to take care of myself.
I’d considered the idea in the abstract before, but implementing it never made sense to me. That is, until I read and understood the message of the Stoics, which was a major breakthrough. The phrase, “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” finally rang true.
Practicing Stoicism didn’t come naturally to me at first.
I tried to live strictly according to Stoic principles — no matter what happened, I would act in the matter I assumed a Stoic would, and it was exhausting.
This isn’t how any new philosophy works. It takes time to implement real and lasting change. Because I tried to force through so many changes virtually overnight, I stumbled out of the gate.
The expectations I’d placed on myself were unfair, anyway. My life and health did not wane in a single day. As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. So how could I expect to fix it all — let alone even make an impactful start — in a day? But the most important thing is that I kept going.
I slowed down, continued to read, study, learn, and began to remove negative people and situations from my life one at a time.
This was the turning point when it came to sticking to this new philosophy of life. By slowing down and truly experiencing everything that I was learning, I was beginning to see positive results in my health.
I could look back through the journal that I had been keeping and see a difference in my outlook on life. I could tell by the fact that I was actually capable of meditating for more than one minute that things were changing for the better.
When something negative happened in my life, like being forced to deal with my first husband in regard to our son, I would not instantly become angry. In the past, this would make me anxious and angry, now, I could talk to him even when he would goad me and attempt to push my buttons and not instantly get angry or upset.
I had learned to breathe.
How Negative Can Be Positive
One of the philosophies of Stoicism is called negative visualization. This means that even though your goal is to remove negativity, anger, grief, and anxiety from your life, to live a good life, you’re also supposed to spend time contemplating what it would mean to lose the things you’ve acquired in your life, up to and including your loved ones.
Loosely told by Seneca to a woman who lost her son, Fortune can swoop in at any time and take back what is hers.
We are not given any guarantee how long we will have our loved ones in our lives. We must love and care for them each day, but realize that we may have them but for a short time.
This is the part of Stoicism that I still struggle with. But, where years ago, I would not have thought to even have these conversations with myself, other than in a negative way, I am now willing to examine the possibilities in order to better prepare myself.
In the End…
Living a good life is important enough to me to make difficult changes. Being patient and seeing how the hard work that I have put into this over the course of a bit over a year has positively impacted my life makes it worthwhile.
As Seneca said, “While we are postponing, life speeds up.”, and I refuse to postpone living a good life any longer.