A couple of incidents during the last week have made me think of stoicism. I’ve no intention of going into the detail of this ancient philosophy that flourished in the Greek and Roman worlds up until the 3rd century AD, and which has had several revivals over the years (including quite recently), but I would like to comment on a ‘prayer’ that for me sums up the stoic approach to life. This is to achieve:
The strength to change those things in life that I can change
The resilience to accept those things in life that I can’t change
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Whilst the exact wording of the above was never uttered (as far as I know) by an actual stoic philosopher, and whilst in modern times it has found form as the Christian ‘serenity prayer’, I think it exactly encapsulates the stoic approach to life. Taken as a statement of intent, of personal development, rather than as a request to a non-existent deity, I think that it provides us with a valuable guide to living – even the saving of humanity.
I think that there is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning those things in life we can change and those we cannot. Take the meaning and purpose we ascribe to life for example. For so many of us this is provided by our blind acceptance of the belief that we are naturally competitive creatures whose raison d’etre is to accumulate as many goods and as much wealth as possible, and that our success in life is measured by the amount of these we have accumulated. Such an attitude is largely believed to be set in stone as part of human nature, and that therefore we should just accept the fact and continue accumulating more and more stuff, even if this accumulation strips the planet of resources and poisons it with our waste.
However, we could, if we wanted, if we could find the strength, provide our selves with an alternative: we could appreciate that for over 90% of our evolution co-operation has been more important than competition and that its development will provide us with the best chance of dealing with most of the big issues that we face; we could see our raison d’etre as that of flourishing as part of a highly inter-dependent global eco-system. Yes, we could if we wanted. This last bit though, this seeing ourselves as plain members of the land community (as Aldo Leopold put it) rather than conquerors of it, is simply the acknowledgment of the truth, and can’t be changed – no matter how much we may wish it otherwise. This acceptance of the fact that we humans are just part of the Earth’s ecosystem, not masters of it, not exterior to it, and that we could easily become extinct if we disturb our relationship with our ecosystem to a much greater extent than we have so far, will require a fair amount of human resilience because it flies in the face of our over inflated sense of importance.
Yes, we humans really need to develop our wisdom. We need to learn to be able to differentiate between those things in life that can be changed and those that can’t. For so many aspects of our existence on this planet we have got it arse about face, believing that much of what we could change if we could find the strength is, instead, a fixed part of human nature, whilst simultaneously failing to see that much of what we are trying to change is in fact inalterable outside of a small degree of variability. If we fail to develop this wisdom soon our future existence has a great big question mark hanging over it.