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Stoicism resonates with our times



Stoicism is the new black.

Ryan Holiday, the modern day stoic, has become a personal guru to many, and Marcus Eurelius’ Meditations is flying off the shelves again.

As we celebrate Chanukah, the Jewish battle against Greek assimilation, it seems timely to revisit its principles and check their resonance with us, 21st century Jews.

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The stoics are especially known for teaching that externalities aren’t good or bad in of themselves – it’s only the narrative we attach to those externalities that make them seem positive or negative. The stoic’s aim is not to allow any of these vagaries to affect their inner peace or equilibrium. Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and more recent voices like Edith Eger’s all echo the basic principles of stoicism – you cannot control anything but your response.

In tumultuous, uncertain times like ours, this principle of stoicism resonates.

It means that the impact of a “happy occasion”, say a promotion at work, would be met with the same inner peace as say, the rand going for a dive. Neither is good nor bad. Total acceptance, surrendering to everything as for your ultimate good, lifts you beyond these vicissitudes. An accomplished stoic would be emotionally resilient to misfortune. This is what it means to be truly free. Aaah … to be totally free of anxiety, worry, frustration, and anger … if only!

Judaism agrees that everything is for your ultimate good, but is a little less ambitious in its expectations of our response. We don’t want just things that are good for us, we also want things sweet, fun, and pleasant. This is why we wish one another a shana tova umetuka (a good and sweet new year). While we may believe that everything that happens is for our ultimate good, it would be wonderful if it wasn’t too hard to swallow too. We’re human after all.

Indeed, faith demands that you believe whatever happens will be for your ultimate good and growth, but it doesn’t stop there. Jonathan Sacks posits that the very purpose of “bad” things, the reason why G-d set up the world with poverty, war, hunger, and disease, is to stir you to action. As a partner in G-d’s world, “bad” things are there to rouse you to take action, to become a dynamic partner in G-d’s world, to take on tikkun olam. Staying unmoved can result in inaction. In apathy.

The greatest turning points of Jewish history – all history for that matter – came from a non-acceptance of the status quo. From Moses who wouldn’t accept the suffering of his brethren to the French Revolution, from the suffragettes to the end of apartheid, progress has come only from discontent, indignation at injustice, and a passion to right wrongs.

A relationship with G-d and our fellow human beings requires a depth of feeling – both good and bad – to be authentic and meaningful. The point of life, as Rabbi David Aaron explains, isn’t to be happy, it’s to live wholeheartedly. Brene Brown calls it “being in the arena”. Only when you can rail against sadness, or injustice, or insecurity, can you feel the joy or growth, the high of triumph, or the warmth of belonging. It’s two sides of the same coin – a distinctly unstoical coin.

Not allowing bumps in the road to affect one’s equilibrium may be a demonstration of faith, and perhaps that pursuit of calm may be comforting, but we need to beware that such serenity doesn’t reduce our passion or agency. Perhaps Jewish stoicism is something of a hybrid – accept that what you cannot change is for your ultimate good, but still ask yourself, what is encumbent upon me as a human being to make the world a better place?

  • Word-lover, avid reader, spiritual-seeker, Torah teacher, publisher-author, crazy crafter, mom of three – Batya Bricker also happens to be general manager books and brand for Exclusive Books.

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