We’re so close to the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives that we often can’t see beyond them.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably faced a problem that seemed to be the most important problem that anyone on the planet was facing at that time.
You’re so embedded in the story of the problem and its negative aspects that no alternative angle seems possible.
And yet, someone else facing exactly the same problem may be viewing it in a completely different way, from a completely different vantage point.
As Donald Robertson puts it:
Knowing not everyone sees a certain situation as catastrophic should make us more aware that the “awfulness” of it derives from our own thinking, our value judgments, and our way of responding rather than the thing itself.Donald Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
Per the Stoics, it’s all a matter of perspective.
“There are many departments,” writes the Stoic philosopher Seneca in his Natural Questions. “In which the standard is not derived from the actual size of the objects, but from our own littleness.”
Said another way, we often believe our own troubles to be huge simply because we ourselves are so small.
Small, that is, in relation to the vastness of the universe.
The Stoic remedy for your loss of perspective at times like this is to zoom out. Way out.
Oliver Burkeman calls it “cosmic insignificance therapy”:
When things all seem too much, what better solace than a reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all? The anxieties that clutter the average life – relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries – shrink instantly down to irrelevance.Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
In relation to the universe, on the timeline of all existence, we are a tiny speck.
While this might sound like a somewhat defeatist attitude, it’s actually an oddly consoling one.
The idea, says Burkeman, isn’t to accept you don’t matter and give up.
It’s to drop back down from “godlike fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely – and often enough, marvelously – really is.”
It’s to see problems for what they are without adding imaginary layers of importance to them and to quit holding yourself to impossibly high standards that you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet.
You may be a tiny speck on the timeline of all existence, but you’re also lucky to be on that timeline at all.
I’m often amazed by, and slightly jealous of, people who can naturally switch their perspectives to adapt to what they face and are able to maintain an enthusiastic attitude in any given situation.
It’s easy to be enthusiastic when things are going well, of course, but what makes these people stand out is their enthusiasm after something goes wrong or when faced with difficult circumstances.
They don’t just put up with what they can’t avoid, they meet it with a welcoming spirit.
The Stoics would say that such people are able to achieve this because they don’t automatically succumb to their instinctive initial impressions. They don’t focus on first feelings, they assess the scenario and decide on the best response.
Not allowing the initial impact of failures, difficulties, or other unwanted events to disturb you more than is necessary makes it much easier to be enthusiastic about what comes after.
It’s a natural reaction to be jolted by a crisis immediately after it happens but it’s what you do next—after you’ve regained your composure—that defines you as a person.
“It’s not what happens to you,” said Epictetus, “but how you react to it that matters.”
Treating failures as learning experiences and difficulties as challenges means they can’t derail you. Understanding the scale of such troubles in relation to the vastness of the entire universe reduces the likelihood that we’ll overestimate them and become overwhelmed.
You’re able to absorb the lessons and move on with an undiminished spirit. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote that life is simply too short to allow our enthusiasm to be disturbed:
You can get rid of many superfluous troubles that depend entirely on your beliefs, and you’ll immediately provide yourself with plenty of mental space. Encompass the whole universe with your mind, contemplate the everlastingness of time, and consider the speed with which individual things change. How short the time is between birth and disintegration, how vast the time before your birth, and how similarly infinite the time after your disintegration!
The idea that most of what disturbs us is in our imagination, and that we have the power to revoke it at any time, is very much a Stoic one.
In actively applying negative judgments to people and events, we allow them to bother us. In other words, we become complicit in our own disturbances simply by permitting initial bad impressions to persist.
As Oliver Burkeman might say, such disturbances aren’t cosmically significant enough to warrant us spending our precious time on them.
And as Marcus Aurelius told himself, we always have a choice:
Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.
It seems simple, but it’s an eye-opener—a revelation in self-awareness almost—when you accept that you have the power to choose whether or not to be harmed.
It takes practice to get out of old self-defeating habits, but no one else decides how you think, no one else decides whether you approach each day with enthusiasm or not. That strength is in you, and always will be, if you just look hard enough.
Even if you routinely view failure as a sign of your own inadequacy, that doesn’t have to be the gateway to giving up. If everyone adopted an attitude of “I can’t do this right now so I should never try again”, nothing would ever get done and no one would ever improve at anything.
You’ll feel a lot better about yourself when you realize that recognizing your inadequacy in an area is the first stepping stone to becoming better at it.
Failing at a task or being faced with a difficult situation is just the beginning of the next challenge, one to be met with enthusiasm.
Viewing difficulties and failures in a non-catastrophic way melts illusions of cosmic significance and allows us to engage with reality. It allows us to experience life as it concretely, finitely – and often enough, marvelously – really is.