Learning Serenity from the Stoics

The year is not yet a month old and my res­o­lu­tions are waste paper. I want­ed to han­dle my time more mind­ful­ly, focus bet­ter and pri­or­i­tize more effec­tive­ly. Like so many oth­ers, my sched­ule is crowd­ed and the 5‑hour rule, i.e. fol­low­ing the exam­ple of Bill Gates or War­ren Buf­fet and to set aside five hours a week for reflec­tion and learn­ing, seems unat­tain­able. I am nei­ther proud of this nor do I want to brag about it. I pre­fer to take it as an occa­sion for a brief rec­ol­lec­tion of the insights of the Sto­ics and their prover­bial seren­i­ty and peace of mind.

Work! But not like an unfor­tu­nate one or like one who wants to be admired or pitied. Work or rest as it is best for the community.

Mar­cus Aurelius

The Roman Emper­or Mar­cus Aure­lius is con­sid­ered the last impor­tant rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Late Sto­icism, one of the most pow­er­ful philo­soph­i­cal build­ings in West­ern his­to­ry. Even with­out the mod­ern plagues such as e‑mail, Out­look, instant mes­sag­ing and social media, busy­ness for its own sake was obvi­ous­ly a thorn in his side. Accord­ing­ly, he rec­om­mends a mind­ful and sus­tain­able use of his own resources as the key to a good life. Inter­est­ing­ly, a few cen­turies lat­er, this is exact­ly what is found in the rules of Saint Bene­dict as his well-known mot­to “ora at labora”.

You are free to with­draw to your­self at any hour. Grant your­self this quite often, this with­draw­al into the inte­ri­or and thus reju­ve­nate yourself.

Mar­cus Aurelius

Eas­i­er said than done. Cer­tain­ly for Mark Aurel, but even more for all of us here today with the nev­er-end­ing day-to-day busi­ness of a glob­al­ly net­worked work­ing world and a mul­ti­tude of ideas and oppor­tu­ni­ties on the hori­zon. And that is exact­ly where the prob­lem lies. The prover­bial sto­ic tran­quil­li­ty is based on rec­og­niz­ing one’s posi­tion in the big pic­ture, accept­ing it by prac­tic­ing emo­tion­al self-con­trol and thus focus­ing one’s ener­gy on the essential.

To be angry with the out­side world would be fool­ish; it does not care.

Mar­cus Aurelius

But it is pre­cise­ly this recog­ni­tion that is becom­ing increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult. The ques­tion “Who am I – and if so how many?” by the philoso­pher Richard David Precht is today – mas­sive­ly rein­forced by self-por­tray­al and self-mar­ket­ing in social media – many times more com­plex than it was in the Roman Empire. And so every­thing seems inter­est­ing or some­how impor­tant and thus the cal­en­dar and the to-do lists are over­flow­ing. Focus­ing is first and fore­most a ques­tion of self-aware­ness. Only those who know them­selves and are con­scious about their pri­or­i­ties can pri­or­i­tize. Exact­ly for this, how­ev­er, time and leisure are essen­tial. And so the vicious cir­cle closes. 

Every­one rush­es into his life, suf­fers from long­ing for the future and from weari­ness of the present.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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