No matter where you find yourself at this moment, there’s a chance that you’re facing a crisis in your life. Whether it’s because of a personal struggle you’re dealing with or the global uncertainty caused by the pandemic, you’ve probably lost all hope, given up and lost meaning in your existence. Your school is closed. Your family is overwhelmed. You live in uncertainty. Or your source of income has been airbrushed because of the lockdown in your country. We’re all experiencing anxiety at an unprecedented level. We’re all having an existential crisis, unlike anything we’ve seen before. Most of us are either stuck or feeling stuck. Considering everything happening now with countries shutting down, economies shrinking, it is justified that we feel the way we feel. Thus, it’s no longer a question of whether we have anxiety or not. It’s no longer a question of whether we’re scared, nihilist about the moment or not. It’s now about how we take control of the situation that has enveloped us and not wither in the face of it. It’s now about us taking control of our panic and hysteria by slowing down our news consumption. To be can be calm. To chim through while choosing our response and be Happy. Comfortable. Resilient.
It is important to remember that this is not the first time that we’ve faced a global crisis. Many of us have already learned about “The Black Death” or personally experienced the Ebola virus outbreak a few years ago in West Africa. If you lived in the time of the Black Death, you probably felt what most people are feeling right now. Or if you lived in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea five years ago you probably also saw no future beyond what was happening at the time. But those who lived during the Black Death have given us a sense of the social realities they faced. And how some people braved the storm and found light in the darkness of the day. We have learned about the resilience of the Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, and his leadership during the crisis. We have learned about the bravery of ordinary folks who lived through the tragedy yet seized the moment to face the odds against them. We have learned that despite all the tragedies caused by the pandemic, humanity persevered, not because they were dreadful but because they were hopeful and saw life beyond the crisis. Because they took control of the situation. And they won.
Regardless of the pandemic, we’re now facing on a global scale, we go through obstacles every day of our lives. And too often, we think it marks the end because of our engagement mechanism and the way we perceive the pickles we face. We have freckled thoughts like broken roads when we face obstacles. Most of the time, some of us remain still like the dead sea. Some of us get lost in the dust of obstacles, but the majority of the time, we do not fear. We face our problems and take control of our lives and situations.
In these moments when the entire world is in chaos, we should ask ourselves how did people who lived before us handle their crisis? How did they live their lives during moments of personal struggles and trials? What can we learn from their lives and how important are their philosophies of a happy life valuable to us today?
I was personally fortunate enough to have grown up with my Grandmother. In my down moments, I invoke her spirit, her enthusiasm. “What would my Grandmother do”, I ask? My Grandmother grew up as a happy and resourceful woman; at a time when technology was nonexistent. She not only taught us inner contentment but also showed us that everything we experience in life is a necessary phase to help us understand and appreciate our being. She taught us to move beyond our physical realities to a transcendental outlook. She taught us to be self-sufficient, and just as the stoics and transcendentalists advise, focus on the things we can control and make choices with meaningful outcomes. She taught us to embrace existence. I watched her make peace with life. She focused on what was in her control and taught us the value of kindness. Humility. A Sense of community. Respect. She taught us to take control of the situations we face in our lives.
The Stoic Seneca, once wrote that “you may be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise reaches you, when no noise shakes you out of yourself, whether it be flattery or a threat or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning sin”. This was my Grandmother in a nutshell. She understood that life was just a series of events, and there was nothing meaningfully different between the past and the present. That one should see the best even in the worst moments. That we should not fear a crisis, but embrace it and make the most of it.
There’s always chaos in the world. Whether it is a pandemic or personal struggle, life always throws problems at us that requires the most of us. It challenges us. It gives us a sense that the world is ending. It gives us a sense of quitting. It is in these times when we’re powerless and helpless that we’re required to be resolute, hopeful and soldier on. The civil rights icon, Martin Luther King, once wrote that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
King himself showed that resilience was possible. He faced and overcame his own struggles. He lived at a time when his intelligence was equated to the colour of his skin, not his rationalism. His method of activism was criticized by other civil right activists who claimed he was a white liberal apologist and served their purpose by preaching non-violence and passive resistance rather than radical revolution. Even at the height of the civil rights movement, he was scorned by whites and blacks who disagreed with him. The FBI tried to wreck his marriage by exposing his extramarital affairs to the public. But he never gave up. He was resolute. He faced his crisis. Had King withered, he would not be the resilient man that history so proudly speaks about today. He proved that we could overcome the obstacles in our lives.
King proved that in spite of the crisis we face, we have to be Still and determined to face it. It is only through this can we see the bright future. Ryan Holiday in “Stillness is the Key” tells us to cultivate Stillness to find peace and quiet. He writes that Stillness inspires new ideas. “It sharpens perspective and illuminates connections”. Stillness, Ryan writes, generates a vision, helps us to resist the passions of the mob, makes space for gratitude and wonder. Stillness allows us to persevere. To succeed. It is the key that unlocks the insights of genius and allows regular folks to understand them.”
We now have the chance to learn from the lives of men like King, Marcus Aurelius or my Grandmother, who faced challenges in their lives and overcame it. No wonder the Chinese word for crisis is “Wei-Ji.” “Wei” for danger and “Ji” for opportunity. It means that our crises sometimes are opportunities. This helps us to not wither in the midst of a crisis but to face it and live meaningfully. That’s why the philosopher Henry David Thoreau teaches us his book Walden “to front only the essential facts of life” and appreciate the particular moments we’re faced with in history. He teaches us about the inevitable wretchedness of life and encourages that we embrace the simple life. To be content. To be Resilient. To be determined. And to be hopeful even when everything seems hopeless.
In “Existentialism is Humanism”, the French philosopher Sartre makes the point that we have so much control in our lives with the power to define ourselves and situations. He believes that the world is absurd with no real purpose, but that through rational decisions we can create meaning for ourselves and live purposely. While Sartre’s existentialism does not believe in any metaphysical principles to existence, he still believes that we’re products of the choices we make in times when everything is lost. Even if you don’t subscribe to the nihilism of existentialism, it teaches you to make rational choices in the life that you have. In the moment that you’re in right now. And take control.
The uncertainty we face now is chaos in and of itself. Resilience is its antidote. Let’s learn to be still, to be calm amid the storm, to be hopeful in the nihilism of our present moment. Let’s use the anxiety of the pandemic and our crisis to be positive, to take control of our lives. Let’s not panic. Panic breeds the worst in us. Just like my Grandmother and the stoics, let’s make peace with life. Let’s cultivate inner peace by transforming the obstacles in our lives as moments of opportunities. More importantly, let’s focus on the things we can control and not shrivel.