“In Stoicism, what you do with the given circumstances matters much more. Stoics recognized that the good life depends on the cultivation of one’s character, on one’s choices and actions rather than on what happens in the uncontrollable world around us.”
Despite its misleading reputation as a rigidly bookish and mostly theoretical endeavor, Philosophy is something we can do, something we can digest and something that can definitely enrich us all. It is more relatable than ever.
In this edition of Bayan Academy’s SAPSE_Webinar, Ms. Maan Sicam, co-founder of Happy Helpers, a known social enterprise, initiates a conversation about philosophy, stoicism and its importance in today’s times. She was able to read Jonas Salzgeber’s The Little Book of Stoicism and found it worthwhile. She shares her thoughts on leadership, principles, crisis management and the importance of philosophy, particularly stoicism, for Entrepreneurs. ‘We want to be good at living’ Ms. Sicam asserts.
What is stoicism? Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy. Virtue, which is the highest good, is based on knowledge. The wise live in harmony with the divine reason that governs nature. Stoics are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune. These core ideas have continuously been misinterpreted over time. Nevertheless, the school of thought remains very much discussed.
For Ms. Sicam, stoicism is a practical school of thought. This means that it could be practiced. ‘We want to be actual warriors of the mind’ Ms. Sicam states. ‘We want to study both theory and practice. If we want to be good at living, we must attain knowledge on how to live.’
Stoicism has two promises: Eudaimonia and Emotional Resilience. Eudaimonia means to live in harmony with your higher self. For stoics, humanity was born with a seed or divine spark. It is in our natural potential to be the highest version of ourselves, the best we could be. That is our goal. In connection to striving for our best selves, we must live with the principle of Arete, excellence and virtue. If we are in harmony with ourselves, we can live our best lives.
Contrary to popular notions, stoicism is not repression or suppression of emotion. Stoicism is acceptance and resilience. Ms. Sicam admits that this is quite hard. Stoicism is acknowledgement and reflection on our negative emotions. Stoicism is freeing oneself from those negative emotions. A stoic person has learned from bad situations and has turned negative emotions and experiences into something that makes him grow to be better. Ms. Sicam states that stoic philosophers see the art of life as more like wrestling or boxing. ‘It is a battle and we should be ready for all the punches because it makes us grow better’. Sure, we can always get hit but we can always get up and when we do, we are stronger.
Stoicism has four cardinal virtues: Wisdom, Temperance, Justice and Courage. Arete is focused on the quality of all actions and experiences. The highest version of ourselves is attained by the practice of all these virtues. Wisdom is understanding how to act and feel appropriately. A person who practices wisdom strives for good sense, excellent judgement and perspective. Temperance is self-discipline or moderation. It is knowing how to act and feel despite strong emotions. Stoicism opposes excess. The third cardinal virtue, Justice, is knowing how to act and feel well about our relationship with others. It includes integrity, public service and fairness. Finally, Courage is about facing your fears. We have to act bravely and persevere.
Ms. Sicam asserts that what we need to focus on is the process of achieving Eudaimonia. Dr. Eduardo Morató, her professor, would always say that the process is more important because it is something we can all control. Living with Arete is the process. This very process will ultimately lead to Eudaimonia.
Attaining Eudaimonia has three core principles: living with Arete, focusing on what we control and taking responsibility. You cannot take responsibility if you cannot focus on what you can control and if you cannot live with Arete. Happiness then is the fulfillment of the cardinal virtues.
COVID-19 has plunged the world into crisis. How do we express the highest version of ourselves in this time? For Ms. Sicam, if we want to be in good terms with our highest self, we must close the gap between what we are capable of and what we are actually doing. If we are unable to express the highest versions of ourselves, this then provides the space for regrets and anxieties. It must be remembered that human beings are both rational and social beings. The common good will always be key. We think of others when we think of ourselves because the best for others will be the best for us as well.
For stoics, life is like a game of poker. We are always dealt with cards. The game is never about the cards though. It is about how players use them, how the cards are played. What guarantees success are the things that you can control. It does not matter what you are given to begin with.
Ms. Sicam uses the creation of academic requirements as an example. People can control how and what they write in their reaction papers but we cannot control the outcomes or marks from the professors and gurus. It always goes back to one’s relationships and reactions with the process more so than the outcome of the endeavor. Stoicism distinguishes between things we can control and indifferents, things beyond our control and how we should be more detached.
The hardest core principle of Eudaimonia is taking responsibility. Get the good from yourself. In that crucial space between stimulus and response, we should pause, be mindful and have a well-thought choice. As leaders, we must take responsibility even before we respond. In a world where shortcuts are taken, where hard yet important questions are rather ignored, where blame is considered impulse, people truly have the freedom to choose. Whether big or small, that short moment of pause and awareness, that is responsibility. Never blame people and outside events for whatever negative emotions. Ms. Sicam echoes Dr. Morató. ‘Our minds are our last bastions. Never let others take over it’.
Actually there are two reasons why we can be overwhelmed or are already overruled with negative emotions. First, it is because what we want is beyond our control. We want things done in an instant, with no inconveniences, no frills. Frustration comes with the realization that this cannot be true all of the time and that there are things beyond our control. Second, it is because we get carried away by tendencies and automatic responses. People can be unmindful. Take for example our responses to criticism. The urge to bite back or to strike with pettiness is at times irresistible.
Ms. Sicam gave life examples of stoicism. Truly, life is impermanent. Things change rapidly. We must accept that everything is borrowed from nature, both the great and the bad things that we have and experience. We must also cut back on vexations of the spirit and wastes of time, the inessential things, gossip. We can use our time growing. We can think about plans to be better.
Ms. Sicam recommends preparing oneself for the day. Visualize and prepare. Prepare for every stimulus that can happen. Prepare to accept surprises, twists and turns. At the day’s end, reflect. Look at your actions and decisions. Keep a journal. Learning and self-growth are continuous.
Another recommendation is to play roles well. Be a good son or daughter. Be a good leader. Be a good colleague. Never procrastinate. Since time itself is fleeting, make the most of every moment and opportunity.
Ms. Sicam also talks about the stimulus moments. How can we act? First of all, judgement and assumptions can harm you. We expect to control the outcome of everything we try and want. To be better, we must beat fear with preparation and reason. Cliché as it sounds, we need to have courage to face our fears. We are only imagining the future and we send our thoughts far ahead, to things we cannot control, Ms. Sicam asserts. We can control our imagination. We can control our expectations and we can control our opinions.
On the idea of forgiveness, for Ms. Sicam nobody does evil on purpose. There is a lack of wisdom. People commit acts rooted in their notions of what is just and what is right. Social Entrepreneurs must remember this especially when working with their communities. Even leaders can err. Nevertheless, great leaders lead by example. The best leaders know how to listen. Injustice lies in things that we choose to not do anything about or ignore. Social Entrepreneurs must provide a great example to their colleagues, communities and beneficiaries.
In his book, Jonas Salzgeber quotes the Serenity Prayer. ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference.’ That truly is stoicism.