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Starting Strength in the Real World

Learning From Marcus Aurelius During a Trying Time Amongst Trying Times

by Daniel Oakes | May 12, 2020

tree in a ruin

The past few months, for me, and perhaps for you, have felt unbearably, perhaps almost comically, stressful. 

I've always had to deal with a high baseline of stress anyway, due to "insert diagnostic label here:.." and thus the current, as Rip so aptly puts it, "Trying Times," sent me spiralling off up a rampart of uncontrolled hysteria, culminating in a brief stress-induced psychotic event during which I wandered around my apartment completely lost in a haze of vivid dreams of biological attack and delusions of being able to avert nuclear war by calling Moscow. (The most upsetting problem, though, is that I lost 7 kg from my Rip-esque ass and my squat went from nearly 300 lb to just the bar.) 

During this trying time amongst Trying Times, my coach, Noah, swiftly morphed from strength trainer to frustrated therapist who was struggling to penetrate the rational part of my mind through the thick cloud of cortisol. 

Apart from the demonstrably helpful guidance to continue exercising, continue eating and continue sleeping (which went straight over my head), one piece of advice Noah gave me seemed to pierce my senses: the advice to read 'Meditations' by Marcus Aurelius. I decided to investigate: 

Marcus Aurelius lived in very similar Trying Times to us, though, perhaps much more trying: Marcus also lived during a plague but there wasn't the same medical provision, and no pizza delivery. He wrote some really potent things, which resonated with me immensely: 

"No matter what happens, keep this in mind: It’s the same old thing, from one end of the world to the other. It fills the history books, ancient and modern, and the cities, and the houses too. Nothing new at all." 

Noah noticed that I was becoming more and more anxious and panicky about these uncertain Trying Times. But I noticed Noah wasn't anxious and panicky at all, or even that uncertain. I realised that nothing that is occurring now should have caused me to descend into hysteria because everything is almost, well, boringly normal - if we look at current events with a historical lense... Why was I so hysterical? At the advice of my coach I decided to delete sensationalist media apps and ended friendships which were fuelled by the flames of hysteria. I made the choice to relax. As Aurelius wrote: “You have power over your mind - not outside events.” 

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” 

Noah noticed, many months ago actually, that I was constantly ruled by fear, so I wasn't really living life to the full. I was too scared to do anything, for years, apart from recently summoning the courage to get a dog and go to the gym (which I touch on in my previous article). And I was always scared of illness and injury (one time I became obsessively concerned with "back tweaks" and started harassing Will Morris in search of comforting reassurance that I won't be crippled by deadlifting. I also randomly thought I had dementia and bowel cancer at one point.) 

This may all sound quite bad. Sorry if I caused you to moisten your barbell with a tear. All of this stress and fear culminating in a psychotic episode must be downright terrible, right? 

I'm not so sure. At one point I thought I was literally being gassed (euthanized) by the government for being a useless burden to society. But when I came to my senses I was really grateful for being alive. I'm actually, peculiarly, much less anxious now than I was before all of this. You could tell me 8 million people died of Covid-19 over the past four minutes, and I'm not sure I would mind that much. I think I've finally been able to face my fear of dying and come out the other side prepared to live: 

“Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforward regard what future time may be given you as uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with nature.”

— Marcus Aurelius

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