Everything Must Go

In previous posts, I’ve been revisiting Stoic philosophy thanks to an excellent guide for those who might be new to Stoicism: The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism: Tools for Emotional Resilience and Positivity, by Matthew Van Natta.

If you’ve recently experienced a loss, the Stoic’s approach to life might be helpful. In fact, the Stoic approach to life has much in common with the Buddhist approach. Strange, but true. From a post on the DailyStoic.com:

“Stoicism and Buddhism are two remarkably similar philosophies that were created independently thousands of miles apart. Buddhism was founded in present-day Nepal around 500 B.C and Stoicism began in Athens, Greece around 300 B.C. They both advocate seeking happiness from an internal source, so that the ups and downs of life will not be your masters. As philosopher and author Nassim Taleb once wrote on the similarities between the two: “A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude.”

The Daily Stoic goes on to say: “The impermanence of everything is the main reason why desire is the cause of all suffering. As Rupert Gethin has written, “As long as there is attachment to things that are unstable, unreliable, changing and impermanent, there will be suffering – when they change, when they cease to be what we want them to be.”

Here’s how Matthew Van Natta puts it in The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism: “All things are impermanent. What you have today will be used up, might break or be taken away, and won’t be yours forever. If you live as if things are permanent, in a world where that is never true, it will hurt to lose them.

That hurt comes from unrealistic thoughts. If you assume that good health is your right, then even a simple cold will seem unjust and cause you to act poorly. If you believe your job will last forever, a layoff will devastate you. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you accept that things are only yours for a time, then you can be happy you had them while you did and not fall apart when they’re gone.”

The impermanence of life is what makes being human so meaningful. We understand and accept it without question in some aspects of our lives: babies will grow up. Children will become adults and leave home. Seasons will change; we may mourn the end of summer but stay hopeful all winter knowing spring will come. We understand that the most perfect evening will have to come to an end. The bouquet your lover sent will fade and die.

We end things ourselves, and it’s a good thing. We graduate. We move. We change jobs. We retire. Sometimes, perhaps often, we don’t know we’re in the best of times when they’re happening; we can only recognize a period as the best part of our experience after it’s over. These feelings are what the word “poignant” was created for.

It may be very hard to remain philosophical when you’ve experienced a loss or a setback. But every event in your life, perhaps even the most unwelcome, offer you the chance to choose how you will respond. A phrase that might help you is, “It was returned.” The Stoics taught that all things outside your control should be viewed as on loan to you. Everything changes, everything is mortal, nothing goes on forever.

By choosing your response, you will also be choosing the person you want to become.

“If a person were to go and stand on a riverbank and, seeing the water flowing swiftly down its course, foolishly want it to flow back up the gradient, he would suffer.” Ajaan Chah

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