Don't Let Things That are Ruining Life Ruin Your Day


Even though there's noting you can do about the major events that affect you, there is something you can do about how they affect you.

With the world seeming sometimes to be “falling apart at the seams”, largely due to wounds that the human race is inflicting upon itself, as individuals we often find ourselves in a state of near grief or defeat, feeling perpetually beaten down emotionally and psychologically by the environmental and dietary issues that seem beyond our control to fix and yet are taking a huge toll on our health and our future well being. But it doesn’t have to ruin your day.

Take air pollution. It’s all anyone in China seems to be talking about these days. At least if the dozens of blogs I read or the daily conversations I engage in are any indication. Even People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, chimed in on the subject with an editorial entitled: “Beautiful China Starts with Healthy Breathing.”

Having a Bad Air Day, Be Thankful You're Not in China


Indeed, the Internet in China is awash in information on how to deal effectively with the situation. One article titled “How to Handle Chengdu’s Pollution Like a Pro” offered some practical suggestions: stay informed on air quality (there’s an App for that), buy an air purifier (Phillips AC4025 is recommended), consider investing in a good mask (Respro), avoid major roads at rush hour (which lasts from 9 a.m. to, oh, about the following 9 a.m.), and for the love of God don’t smoke (it’s redundant).

One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that all of the advice focuses on the physical effects of air pollution. Now, this is a reasonable starting point, but it’s really only half the battle. For in addition to its impact on the body, walking around in air that you can chew can exact a heavy psychic toll. But as far as I can see, no one is talking about how to deal psychologically with the issue of air pollution.

This is where one particular discipline of philosophy comes in handy. People like to say that philosophy has no practical use, but frankly there is nothing more relevant to getting through the day — especially a polluted day — than a good grounding in the 2,300 year old tradition of Stoicism.

Reach Back to Stoicism and Make Your Life Better


The essence of Stoicism can be stated fairly simply, even if applying it is a lifetime’s work. As the Greek Stoic Epictetus put it, “It is not the things themselves that upset us, but how we react to things.” That is, you think you are freaking out because of the air pollution. In fact, you are freaking out because of your reaction to the air pollution. This might sound like a distinction without a difference, but Stoics tell us that while we can often do nothing whatsoever about our external environment, how we respond internally is completely up to us. Regardless of the situation, we can choose to stay calm and retain our peace of mind.

After reminding us of this important piece of information, Stoicism goes on to provide various devices to help us retain our psychic calm. One of my favorite devices comes in the form of a quote from the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

Marcus-Aurelius-by-Rob-ShenkCredit:“You can remove many things that disturb you by comprehending the whole universe, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of all things, and how short is the time from birth to death, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the boundless eternity after death.”

Sometimes we need to get perspective and look at the big picture in order to calm down.

Elsewhere Marcus urges us to take pride in the mere fact of endurance.

"Thou must be like a promontory of the sea, against which, though the waves beat continually, yet it both itself stands, and about it are those swelling waves stilled and quieted."

On perhaps a more optimistic note, Epictetus instructs us that we should not demand things happen as we wish, but act as if whatever happens is precisely the state of affairs we desired more than anything. Admittedly, it might be hard to understand why anyone would choose to be surrounded by a PM 2.5 count off the charts rather than situated on a beach in Thailand. But a little imagination could clearly allow you to come up with a scenario. Perhaps the bad external conditions will force you to examine your internal life, or engage in some much needed study. I had a friend who viewed a serious illness in a similar positive light, looking for the good to come out of it.

So right after you buy that bad air gear, consider downloading one of the classic Stoic texts (I would recommend the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius). It will protect your psyche in the same way that a good mask will safeguard your lungs.

Don't Worry, Be Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Troubled Times
Amazon Price: $36.99 $26.00 Buy Now
(price as of Aug 25, 2016)