A Stoic Guide to Coping With the Holidays

We struggle with drunk and flirty coworkers at holiday parties, rowdy relatives at family gatherings, and the inherent foibles of holiday travels. It’s a never ending parade of potential headaches in between the festivities.  Yet often the real problem is that we torment ourselves with an idea of what the most wonderful time of the year should be like.  One group of philosophers had particularly useful advice for minimizing meltdowns and keeping our visions of sugar plums in check: the Stoics.

Stoicism is a practical philosophical school of thought from the ancient world that emphasizes developing virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance in order to flourish. It offers a way to find inner tranquility by reflecting on and taking personal responsibility for how we understand and react to our emotions. If the emotion helps us to live well, then we cultivate it. If it’s excessive, irrational, or destructive, then we take command of ourselves and correct our judgement. This idea – that we are not upset by things around us but rather by the views we take of them – is a key theme in cognitive-behavioral therapy.

By day, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.) fought invading tribes. By night, he wrote in his private journal. It’s unlikely that he meant for his diary to be published, yet Meditations has become one of the most popular and enduring works of Stoicism, read by leaders including Bill Clinton.  Here are five ways that we can apply Aurelius’ wisdom to our holidays in order to flourish while making merry.

1. Plan ahead.

Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings.

Expect to be given a gift you hate by someone you love.  Perhaps your own parents still don’t understand who you are and blatantly ignore your not-so-subtle requests.  Why are you surprised?  Plan not to be surprised again.  Moreover, temptations for libations abound, but remember that you control your decisions about how much to indulge. How many drinks can you handle? Know your limits and stick with them. Can you arrive at the airport early enough to cope with long lines? Foresight is proactive.

2. Accept that things will go wrong and people will annoy you.

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.

Instead of getting angry at the delivery person for losing a package, or your parents-in-law for criticizing your cooking, remember: it’s not you. It’s them.  Have a plan B involving take-out just in case you drop the turkey on the floor.  Don’t apologize as if everything was supposed to be in your control.  The worst case scenario might be a wonderful break from your rituals and expectations. Allow yourself to surf chaos. And then move on with joy in your heart…or at least without going postal.

3. Stay present.

Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer. Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present.

Don’t rely on escapism to solve your problems. Numbing yourself with spiked eggnog or booking a vacation to avoid catching up with family will not make your problems go away. Avoid wallowing over the ghosts of Christmasses past and awfulizing about the future.  Instead, focus on what you can do and control right now.  Face your fears, show some courage, and cultivate a sense of humor

4. Consider your mortality.

Not as though thou hadst thousands of years to live. Death hangs over thee: whilst yet thou livest, whilst thou mayest, be good.

Meditate on this: next season you might be dead. Or your loved ones might be. Someday you might look back and long for the ridiculousness of the season.  Life is short, so don’t waste it.  

5. Practice gratitude.

Cherish your gifts, however humble, and take pleasure in them.

At the beginning of Meditations Aurelius lists people to whom he was grateful, as well as why he was grateful to them. Be grateful that you still have a sense of humor and enough imagination to know that things could always be worse.  Your co-workers, family, and singing neighbors could be even more annoying. Take a walk to cool off and remind yourself of the good people and good things in the world.

Imagine what your world would be like if you followed Aurelius’ advice, not just over the holidays, but every day:

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Co-authored by Monica McCarthy and Skye ClearyMonica McCarthy is the founder of the Cheshire Parlour, the creator of Write Your Manifesto, a public speaker, a Broadway actress, and a producer/director. Skye Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love.

An earlier version of this article was published on The Huffington Post.

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