Chaos and war in the Ukraine; you will survive or if not, will die quickly
News organisations, and their audiences, are currently very excited. There may be a war in the Ukraine; it could be a big one, if Russia gets involved. There are troop movements on the border, apocalyptic comments from fierce bearded nationalists, intransigent outbursts from Putin and more weakness covering up as moderation from Obama.
We might not realise it, but with our mania for updates – our checking every two minutes whether some new detail has emerged – we are exactly where modern news organisations want us to be: panicked, hooked, desperate to know a worrying future, and convinced that we are dealing with an utterly rare, uniquely tragic event. It’s great for advertisers.
News organisations have felt under great commercial pressure for months (the news has been too good). There were hopes for an air crash or a good typhoon, but this will do wonderfully. It could even be cooked up as World War III (always a favourite scenario to evoke).
As a result of all this news, in schools, workplaces and living rooms around the globe, people are understandably plunged into grave concern and anxiety: What will happen now? Is it the end? Thermo nuclear war?
News outlets love to make us, their audiences, agitated, frightened and bothered a lot of the time, that’s how they make their money – and yet all of us have an even greater responsibility to ourselves to try to remain resilient and calm. They pretend that they are getting us wound up about the Ukraine for our own sakes; we should never forget that they’re doing it for their bottom line.
At moments like this, we should turn to a philosophy known as Stoicism, which became popular in the late Roman era, under the guidance of two thinkers in particular, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics were living in a time of constant political turmoil, with wars, coups and intrigues breaking out on a continuous basis. The question they asked themselves was: how can a person remain calm in the face of constant risk?
Their answer was distinctive. Rather than allow oneself to be constantly surprised and panicked by the prospect of bad things that might happen, the Stoics preferred to make themselves fully at home with the very worst scenarios that could threaten humankind and then reassure themselves that, far from ideal, these new realities would still be survivable. ‘A Stoic prefers to have two arms,’ observed Seneca, ‘but – after much practice and study – he will not despair if events mean that he ends up with only one.’
This sort of steely, resigned pessimism functions like a balm that can be applied right across the anxious wound created by the news agenda. Contrary to what the media suggests, hardly anything is ever totally awful, few things are truly shocking and very little is unsurvivable. The revolution will not mean the end of history; it will just change a lot of things in many different small and complicated ways. The moves in the Crimea will, at their worst, be a rerun of a version of the Yugoslavian conflict, which was terrible for many thousands and left you and 99.9% of humanity unscathed. The economic indices remain quite grim, but we have weathered comparable challenges many times over. A bad avian flu may disrupt international travel and defeat known drugs for a while, but research laboratories will eventually understand and contain it. The storms looked dramatic, but in the end, they affected merely a fraction of the population and receded soon enough. Rome fell, torn apart by vicious barbarians, but six hundred years later, everything was almost back to normal again.
Stoicism is the philosophy most diametrically opposed to the spirit of modern news. We like it a lot in our newsroom. We’d rather keep you calm through a little pessimism than tortured and checking your phone through free-floating naive terror.
‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’
Seneca ended his life being ordered to kill himself by the deranged Emperor Nero. Some of his friends panicked and started weeping. He told them not to be so silly: ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’
As a first step in Stoicism, we recommend an update on the Ukrainian situation every two days, not every ten minutes. And do keep in mind that even if we do end up losing that proverbial second arm, we can muddle through with one.