On Resilience

Marcus AureliusA theme that has been trending for several years is that of resilience, and it’s especially topical in times of major events (think COVID-19). But it’s also of huge daily relevance in terms of being resilient when trying to change (by which I mean improve) a ‘big hairy’ system.

I’ve watched several talks on resilience1 (and coping with uncertainty) and dug around a bit for key insights…and I reflect that much of what has been learned (through considerable modern research) was apparently understood a couple of millennia back by the Greeks and Romans.

I’m referring to (what I consider to be) the highly useful Hellenistic school of Philosophy known as Stoicism2. I think that there’s a great deal of value that the ‘individual’ can gain across all walks of their life from understanding the basics. You might be surprised at how much of it you already know3.

What’s it all about?

The foundational idea within Stoicism is that we should live our lives according to (what we might refer to as) ‘nature’.

And looking at us as humans within nature, two points are relevant:

  • we are highly social animals; and
  • we are capable of reason.

…and, to a Stoic, it follows that the best kind of life is the application of reason to improve social living.

I like this. It’s succinct and highly appealing.

Scholars refer to ‘two pillars’ of Stoicism:

  • The dichotomy of control; and
  • The cardinal values

The Dichotomy of Control

Do you have a problemThe Greeks and Romans had a most useful concept – the goddess of Luck/ Fortune.

She represented life’s capriciousness – which could bring good or bad luck, where this is down to chance.

The point was that luck/fortune is outside of you.

And so, to the idea of what you can and cannot control4…and, importantly, how this is of enormous use to us in dealing with what goes on ‘in our heads’.

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; Not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus)

You’ve likely seen this logic before, whatever your tradition (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism,….).

Some thoughts to expand upon:

  • Life is a dynamic and spatial ‘game’:
    • Dynamic – the now: We have no control over what has happened in the past, nor most of what may or may not be ahead
    • Spatial – the here: we have no control over that which is happening elsewhere without our knowledge (including in other people’s heads!)

We are just working on what is before us and known to us5.


  • In every moment of every situation:
    • Whatever we can do, then a Stoic would do it rather than worry
    • Whatever we can’t, then a Stoic would reason not to worry. It is what it is.

  • We may not be able to control our thoughts and feelings (which stem from our primitive brain), but we do have the power (if we so choose) over our responses to them.

To clarify: Stoicism isn’t about suppressing our emotions. It’s about recognizing them, reflecting upon them, and redirecting them for our future good.

“Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet. Just say to it: hold on a moment, let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” (Epictetus)


  •  Be kind to ourselves: We should ‘forgive’ ourselves for decisions that we’ve already made. They’ve been and gone – out of our control. It is what it is.

  • We have the gift of thinking to the future and attempting to influence it, but we do not control it.

We should be concerned with our intentions and efforts, not with the outcomes.

 “Do not attach your self-esteem to the outcome, only attach it to what’s under your control – to your attempt.” (Cicero)


  • To be able to think about control in this way requires an initial understanding (such as the above) and then constant practice. We will never be perfect at it (we are human), but we can always get better.

As Dr Lucy Hone puts it1:

 “Resilient people ‘get’ that ‘shit happens’, and that suffering is part of life….and knowing this stops them feeling discriminated against when the tough times come.”

An appreciation of control isn’t a magic pill, just a way of thinking that will help us best survive and thrive (both physically and mentally).

The Cardinal Values

So, if we understand the difference between what we can control, and what we can’t, this raises another question: How should we act/ respond to the things we can control?

The Stoics identified four cardinal values to guide us:

  1. Practical wisdom: the knowledge of what is and isn’t good for you

“Resilient people ask themselves ‘is what I’m doing helping or harming me?’” (Dr Lucy Hone1)

  1. Courage (physical and moral): to stand up and do the right thing
  2. Temperance (or, in today’s language, moderation): do things in the right measure (not over or under do)
  3. Justice: which tells us what the right thing is (in interacting with others)

The Stoics considered justice to be the most important of the virtues. Justice wasn’t about a narrow definition of lawfulness. It was about living together in society:

“Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.” (Epictetus)

And on to Serenity

Putting the ‘two pillars’ together gives us this rather nice, and simple, Venn diagram:

What you should focus on

“Resilient people are good at choosing carefully where to focus their attentions:

    • Appraising the situation; and then
    • Focus on the things that they can change; and
    • Accept the things that they can’t” (Dr Lucy Hone1)

If you can limit yourself to focusing on what you can control and then act in a way that has true meaning (for you, for society) then you are highly likely to live a calm life.

Not calm, as in leisurely. Your life might be incredibly busy!

Rather, an inner calm – what the Stoics referred to as serenity.

The goal is not to reach perfection, it’s just to be the best that you can be….and better than you were yesterday.

But there are obstacles in my way!

Things will always happen that you don’t want to happen, but you can use them to think about how to move forward because of it.

You may set out in one direction and become obstructed, but this then allows you to work on making progress in alternative direction(s).

‘Inside every obstacle is a chance to improve your condition’ (The Daily Stoic)

The obstacle in the path is the path.

A closing thought

When it comes to resilience, one might see Stoicism as the practical philosophy of how to be resilient. It is said to be practical because Stoicism is about our actions, not our words.

Resilience isn’t a fixed trait (that some do or don’t have). Rather, it requires us to practise with some very ordinary (i.e. do-able) processes.

It’s not always easy to ‘think’ in these ways, but it does help!

Footnotes:

Caveat: The above is written to help me and others who can help themselves (albeit with the application of effort).  It’s not ‘the answer’ for everything and everyone. I don’t wish to trivialise mental health issues that some may have. I’m not a clinical psychologist. I’m not suggesting that people with deeper problems can just ‘help themselves out of it’ on their own.

1. Resilience: Here’s a link to an extremely powerful talk in respect of resilience The three secrets of resilient people, by Dr Lucy Hone. You will likely see that the three ‘secrets’ (which I have slotted into my post above) could almost have been picked out of a Stoic’s ancient life journal.

2. The word ‘Stoic’, as distinct from Stoicism: The word ‘stoic’ has entered the modern English language as meaning ‘someone that doesn’t show their emotions’ (ref. the very British phrase of a ‘stiff upper lip’). However, this modern and simplistic translation isn’t what Stoicism is about. Rather, it’s misleading.

3. Why do we seem to know so much about Stoicism?: The Philosophy of Stoicism was born in Athens, Greece around the 3rd Century B.C. by Zeno. It was then adopted by the Romans (ref. Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius). It got replaced by Christianity around the 4th Century A.D. but many of its ideas were subsumed into the Christian writings.

Many well-known/ influential people have studied Stoicism over the years and have used it as a ‘way of life’ (kings, presidents, economists, artists, writers…) Some of the more recent Philosophers have used Stoicism as a basis for their ideas.

If you want to know more, here’s a nice 18 min. TEDx Athens talk by Massimo Pigliucci on Stoicism. Some of my summary of Stoicism above comes from this talk. If you’re interested then there are some interesting websites (The Daily Stoic and How to be a Stoic)

4. “No control-ness”: Our personal lack of control in the here-and-now covers a vast (infinite) expanse! From the gargantuan down to the miniscule. I had some fun putting together a graphic that (hopefully) paints this point:

No control spectrum

* The reference to farting is in honour of the highly practical 16th century philosopher Montaigne. He considered that Plato (and others) had done the ‘heavy lifting’ on the big stuff but had missed out pondering the important small stuff, to be found in our everyday lives (including farting).

Clarification: There’s no science to my spectrum. It’s just a device to assist my narrative.

5. You can likely see that the modern term of ‘mindfulness’ fits here, where this has been defined as the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness)

6. The main image at the top of this post is of a statue of the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

7. Clarification: Stoicism is not a religion, and we are not being told (or even asked) to slavishly follow in their footsteps. Here’s a fantastic quote from Seneca in this regard:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, Seneca)

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