23+ wellbeing things. No. 13 – Three historic thinkers on thriving amid adversity

Many things in life are unavoidable and cannot be changed.  We can work to influence some, object loudly to others, and even dedicate our lives to fighting certain causes but fighting the world is tiring.  As a matter of self-preservation, we have to pick our fights with care.  Here are a few thoughts from the great thinkers of the past on making the most of life’s adversities.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca - Stoic Roman philosopher
Lucius Annaeus Seneca – Stoic Roman philosopher

Seneca on anger

Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it. ~ Seneca

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca observed that we waste our energy becoming angry at the smallest things because reality disappoints our expectations.  We expect our pen to not run out of ink, for our drink bottle not to leak, to be able to come and go as we please, and for conditions to always be optimal for study, and yet we are frequently confronted with a reality that forces us to change how we will get what we want.  As John Lennon observed, “Life is what happens while you make other plans.”

Feeling frustration and upset when we have to rethink only wastes energy.  Instead, it helps to ask of each hiccup, challenge and disaster life throws at us, “how can I use this?”  There is a lesson to learn in every mishap and problem encountered – either a better way of carrying on to be discovered or a simple reminder that we do best in life when we accept and make the most of a bad situation than complaining that life should be easier.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya
Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, by the artist Francisco Goya

The Duke of Wellington on procrastination

“The work of the day, in the day.” ~ The Duke of Wellington

The Duke of Wellington was one of the most formidable personalities at the turn of the eighteenth century, an indominable military leader and towering political figure who saw no use in worrying about what might happen in the future and refused to be distracted by anything in the moment.  He decided what needed to be done today and ploughed into it.

More recent studies of learning suggest that if you can focus without distraction on a problem for just 25 minutes and then take a short break, you will overcome the sense of impending dread and pain that leads to procrastination and set your brain up readly to learn.  The breaks you take doing something different then allow your brain to consider the problem in the round unconsciously and creatively so that when you return you are better able to understand more.  Similarly, revising over time creates better connections in your mind than cramming everything all at once.  Here’s a link to a post where you can read more about this “Pomedoro technique” and here is a list of five-minute diversions to get you started.


Bronze statue of the Roman poet Ovid
The Roman poet Ovid

Ovid on competition

“The harvest is always richer in another man’s field.” ~ Ovid, Art of Love (1 BC)

Comparing yourself to others is another easy trap to fall into.  The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence because we see others unclearly and through the filter of what they choose to show us.  Like so many swans, we see only the easy display of confidence people show to the world and not the frantic scrabbling beneath the surface as they struggle to cope.  We do not see their problems, their cares, their worries, their failures.  Most people’s lives seem idyllic only because we do not know enough about them.  When we can only see them online from a distance, the disparity between our perception and reality can only grow.  Still, as Laura Fraser observes, “It’s not that the grass is greener on the other side, it’s that you can never be on both sides of the lawn at the same time.”

Hopefully, the lessons from these great thinkers of yesteryear will make living today just a little easier.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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