I envy people who can, in times of great distress, turn to God or a version of a ‘higher power’ that they unhesitatingly believe in. There is comfort in the belief that once you let your hardships be known to this powerful figure, you’ve done the most that you could.
There is also a strange comfort in the belief that it is this powerful figure who creates your hardships in the first place, for a purpose that is not yet your business to know.
For atheists like me, there is no such comfort to be had.
When I was a teenager, I traded the comfort of religion for what I believed was a more rational perspective on life. I still stand by that perspective, but it comes with its own set of troubles.
A few months ago, when the pandemic started raging across the world and threatened to destroy everything I know and love, I found myself desperately wishing I had something or someone to place my faith in.
The choice to not have religion in my life means that in moments like this, I seek relief in other subjects. Science and art have been faithful companions when it comes to my belief system and they played their part during the lockdown. Science kept me informed about facts, numbers, causes and precautions. Art kept me entertained with literature, cinema, TV, and the ever-evolving antics of social media. But this time, it just wasn’t enough.
As someone who lives with anxiety, I experienced during the lockdown a constant, severe state of helplessness, accompanied by the feeling that what was happening to the world and me was cruel and unfair. As lives, time, jobs and opportunities were callously being taken away, I became frustrated and fixated on the injustice of this loss.
I despaired at the fact that I was locked up in my own house with my hopes for the future turning into ‘lost time’ and ‘futile dreams’. I spent days imagining and fearing worst-case scenarios and lamenting my inability to do anything about the situation.
There is nothing quite like a global pandemic to shake up your entire belief system. Science and art had their own place in mine, but this time, I needed so much more than to be informed and entertained.
I needed some comfort.
Then one day, as I was going about my chores while listening to a philosophy podcast, I heard these words:
“Remember that all we have is ‘on loan’ from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission – indeed, without even advance notice.”
The quote was by Roman philosopher Seneca, who died almost two millennia ago. It was part of an episode which aired six years ago. Yet, I felt like I was being directly counselled, almost admonished, at that very moment.
As these words offered up the idea that nothing I cherished or held on to in my life was truly mine in the first place, I felt a weird sense of relief wash over me. How can you fret about something you do not control?
I don’t know if this is what people seek when they thumb through religious texts for answers and epiphanies, but it certainly felt a lot like it. I mulled over Seneca’s words all day and then spent the next few weeks absorbing his works and everything I could get my hands on about his life and philosophy.
I learned about a man who was born into a rich home and yet spent a life preaching about the evils of wealth and material comforts:
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are.”
I found a philosopher who wrote letters of consolation to his mother after himself being unjustly exiled from his home town and stripped of his titles:
“I am suffering nothing… All those blessings which Fortune kindly bestowed on me – money, public office, influence – I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me.”
And I discovered the calm, unwavering courage of an advisor who at the behest of his deranged ruler Nero, was eventually forced to take his own life:
“I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.”
Reading about Seneca’s words, life and philosophy helped me come to terms with the impermanence of the things I hold dear. It made me realise that if there was anything that I had lost during the pandemic, it was the delusion that I had control over my life.
It also helped me confront the fact that while my future was unclear and the world was indeed in dire straits, so many of my anxieties were founded on needlessly fearful ‘what-ifs’. One of my worst panic attacks happened during the lockdown because a little lethargy had led my anxious brain to the conclusion that I was infected and dying. As Seneca puts it in ‘On Peace of Mind’,
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
When I had decided to pursue some words I heard on a philosophy podcast during the lockdown, it wasn’t in search of answers or comfort. Philosophy to me has always been a fun curiosity, some food for the mind and a great topic for conversation.
But call it serendipity, divine intervention – or just a long enforced period of anxiety – which took me to places I would never otherwise have looked at, I ended up finding some much-needed perspective and a whole lot of comfort in philosophy. It came to my rescue at a time when I could have easily gone down a rabbit hole of dread and despair.
That is not to say that I now pray at the altar of Seneca or have turned into an evangelist of philosophy. Seneca is just one philosopher, and his life and works remain a topic of much debate. And I understand that delving into philosophy might not necessarily offer comfort to everyone.
But what I learned from discovering philosophy during one of the hardest times in my life was to cope with adversity by reframing my perspective. With or without religious associations, every branch of philosophy, ranging from Seneca’s Stoicism to the Chinese tradition of Taoism, offers a way to approach life’s trials from new, unusual angles.
Along with science and art, philosophy now has a place in my belief system as a discipline that challenges my assumptions and helps me discover new ways to cope with existence when it gets burdensome. We need all the help we can get because as Seneca once said,
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
Akanksha Dhyani is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.
Featured image credit: Wikipedia