This book isn’t about running, that much I’m sure is obvious, but still I was interested in seeing if the lessons it had to teach could be extrapolated into some useful wisdom for our running ways. I have a bit of a background in philosophy having studied the subject at University but the truth is that I haven’t exactly kept up with my reading and this book, which is designed to be a practical introduction to an ancient school of philosophy, is pretty much my level right now.
The author, Jonas Salzgeber, sets out to introduce his readers to the basic principles of Stoicism and to the leading thinkers, teachers, and writers of the school (from the ancient with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, to the modern, with Ryan Holiday). More importantly though, he sets out a series of practices for us to use in our lives in order to become the ‘warrior philosophers’ that the stoics wish us to be. How should that leave us?
Resilient, confident, and calm.
Despite what the connotations of the name may suggest Stoicism isn’t about suppressing emotion, but simply controlling them, understanding them. The book is essentially a self-help guide in this way. Now, exactly what your patience for such books is will probably influence how you feel about reading The Little Book of Stoicism. Personally, I can’t help but be interrupted in my reading by intrusive thoughts along the lines of:
‘Who are you and why should I listen to what you have to say?’
Of course, I don’t have to listen to what they have to say. I’m just broadening my horizons.
Thing is there is absolutely some interesting thoughts for runners to explore here. Stoicism is emotional discipline, and from my perspective running is one of the greatest tests of emotional discipline that there is. Yes, it is a physical challenge, but it is rare that my body holds me back. It is rare that running provides a pain which is so extreme that I cannot stand it, or it is dangerous for me to continue. Yet my brain is always telling me that I want to stop, telling me that’s it’s not worth it, that it’s too hard.
Consider this quote:
‘This is what we’re here for, say the Stoics. Life is supposed to be hard. It’s even unfortunate if you don’t have to face these challenges. Hear out Seneca: “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”’
By running we choose a challenge. We choose a certain amount of adversity. If I was to be slightly dramatic I might just say that running is like a distillation of life, it has it’s obvious ups and downs and sometimes those downs are so tremendous and horrible that we imagine that we can’t possibly get through them. And yet, so often, we come up on the other side and…life goes on, we run on, we finish what we started.
Another quote, from the book but from Marcus Aurelius:
“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind—I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?”
I believe there is a risk this kind of attitude could lead to the kind of mindset that you see frequently online, where people are quick to tell others that their struggles aren’t valid, and that they should stop complaining because things will get better eventually, because that’s just how things work. This kind of faux wisdom is in poor spirits, and really against the aim of Stoicism. There is no need to enforce yourself on the world in that way, it is up to you to choose your path for yourself and there is no need to downplay someone else’s struggles because you believe you are in such total control of your own.
Truth is that if you feel that way, your struggles probably aren’t that bad. Stoicism isn’t about not feeling, it is about recognizing feelings, of despair, of depression, of pain, and actively deciding how you want to deal with them, rather than letting them choose your actions for you.
I’m not going to go through the lessons Salzgeber puts forth to suggest how you actually do that, but I will suggest that you consider giving it a go yourself. For me, way more than half the battle when it comes to running is in the mind. It makes sense to train the mind as well as the body, and whether you do it with this book and it’s practical lessons, or something else, it can only do runners, and non-runners, a whole world of good.