On Saturday, I went to the funeral of someone who died too young. He had to travel a harder road than most of us. From the time he was little, his body began attacking itself. As a young adult he went through organ failure, donation, and failure again. The church was packed with the many people whose lives he affected: there were hundreds in the pews. As the many speakers told us, here was a man who suffered great pain, yet somehow was always there for others. He was a counselor for at-risk youth, he was a great friend. He was always reaching out to others in need. And his friends (of whom there were many), in turn were deeply loyal and supportive.
One officiant wanted to try to explain this man’s life to the mourners. How could anyone going through such pain and disappointment find the will to not only keep going, but help others in the process?
So he told a story.
There once was a mystic who was well known for his philosophical writings. He lived at the top of a tower. As the mystic got older, he became more frail yet he was often sought out by those who admired his philosophy. One of these admirers accompanied him to his tower and noticed he was having tremendous difficulty climbing the steps to the top. How, he was asked, was he able to reach the top every day?
I have two different ways of counting things, he said. For the stairs, I count them this way. “One…One…One…One…One…One…”
But I count my blessings differently. I count them like this: “One…Two…Three…Four…Five…”
The stairs represent life’s challenges. The mystic advises us to take them only one at a time. Don’t look up and become overwhelmed by the many stairs. Don’t worry about how to get to the top. Don’t dwell on the third stair, which you dread might be the worst of all. Each challenge is One. The next step is One. The last step is One.
Where we should do traditional counting, the mystic said, is for the positive things in our life. Family is One. Loved ones is Two. Friends is Three. A roof over our heads is Four. And so on. So often we focus on what we don’t have. What we’re missing. What we’re entitled to. What others have. What we imagine we NEED. We should count each blessing, the mystic said, and remind ourselves of our riches.
I’d never heard such a clear encapsulation of stoicism before. My husband and I were introduced to the philosophy by my dad a while back, and it has become incredibly helpful to us both. I think stoicism has a bad reputation, because many assume being stoic means never being emotional.
Stoicism never pretends life isn’t horrible. It never assumes that challenges won’t rear up and the philosophy won’t promise a perfect life. Instead, the stoics teach us that challenges will happen, terrible events will occur. They advise that the only way to prepare for such things is to count the good things we have, over and over again. Connect with people we love and like, again and again. Be thankful for a warm afternoon with a sultry breeze, for a beautiful vista filled with unseasonal wildflowers. Feel grateful all of your organs are operating properly. Enjoy a chai tea latte, and the smile from a cranky child. Be thankful you can help a friend who is now struggling with their own One. Then, face your challenges. One…One…One…
It takes a lot of practice to just say One. It takes a lot of patience to count the wonderful things in our lives, and not the problems or dissatisfactions.
Aside: The stoics, oddly for a philosophy which knows bad things will happen (fate is big in the ethos) also promotes agency. I am greatly simplifying, but the idea is that if you can control something, and it promotes virtue, you should. In other words: yes, you should save for retirement.
Is it worth the struggle? Is it worth the journey? Saturday reminded me that at the end of the stairs, at the top of the tower, when we take our last step (One), it’s our impact on those we know and love that is at the top. We can’t control everything that will happen on the stairs of life. Many things that happen on the climb will be terribly unfair. But we can control how we handle ourselves on those stairs.
(No, I’m not being paid by the stoics, but if you want to read about stoicism, this is a good start.)
Stoics: yay or nay? Or is Marie Kondo your guru? Let me know in the comments…