Constructing an Inner Citadel
by Paul Wilson
‘Permacrisis’ has been declared word of the year by the Collins English Dictionary. The term is intended to describe a prolonged period of instability and insecurity. As we slowly recover from a pandemic, contend with a global cost-of-living crisis, and worry about the escalation of a European war, it is hard to dispute the relevance of the word. Permacrisis has become our new normal. A dystopian state we all inhabit.
The successive impacts of a permacrisis can take a toll upon our health and wellbeing. Adverse experiences tend to have adverse consequences – unless we take protective steps to mitigate their harmful effects. So, in these times of permacrisis, we should focus as never before upon the necessity of self-care.
Self-care is not a straightforward matter. Our natural inclination to take care of ourselves can be eroded by the continuous waves of crisis. In our stressed and anxious response, we may turn instead towards coping strategies that are ultimately self-destructive, such as drinking too much alcohol or eating too much unhealthy food – or worse. Thus, the slow suicide of self-destruction begins.
We need to make better choices than that, for our own sake and for the sake of those we love and support. Instead of seeking pain relief in the fridge or the pharmacy, we should delve into the eternal toolkit of Stoicism. There we can equip ourselves properly for permacrisis.
Modern models of personal growth offer the prospect of ascension towards higher states of being. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of positive psychology, and the Five Ways to Wellbeing are good examples. Stoicism too is a method of ascension. It provides us with entry level practices and the prospect of a slow climb towards the mystical realm of self-transcendence. Anyone who has ever been to that metaphorical mountain top, however briefly, knows how beautiful the view is. The is no material reward to match it.
But in a time of permacrisis, personal growth can be too lofty a goal – iron pyrites rather than real gold. Self-care is the treasure we seek. The purpose of self-care is not to turn us into physical and psychological super-people. While incremental improvements to our wellbeing are always desirable, sometimes stability is the best outcome we can hope for – especially in a crisis. Self-care can help us function during difficult times, until we have an opportunity to flourish once again. That is a far better fate than a precipitous descent into dysfunction. There is a lot to be said for reaching a safe plateau and waiting out the bad weather, rather than trying to scale a lofty peak in poor conditions!
Stoicism provides us with a self-care toolkit that should be labelled ‘open in the event of an emergency’. Ideally it would be used well before then, in line with Seneca’s famous instruction: ‘If you would not have a man flinch when crisis comes, train him before it comes.’
But if a permacrisis is already upon us, Stoicism still offers us solace, strength and practical tools. In this respect it is superior to modern schools of self-care and personal growth – at least in my opinion.
So, what awaits us in this fabled toolkit? What stabilising, fortifying practices might we seek? They truly are too numerous to mention, so I shall recommend those that have been most useful to me during these years of permacrisis…
1. Try ‘The dichotomy of control’ and create a tranquil self in a turbulent world
“Nowhere you can go should be more peaceful – and freer of interruptions – than your own soul.” – Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism has many dimensions, but its central concerns are exercising control and practising virtue (i.e. personal excellence and prosocial behaviour). In a permacrisis, control is a rare and precious resource. We may find ourselves buffeted by the winds of fate, but at the centre of a storm lies a calm spot – often referred to as the eye. This is what we should seek to be in a crisis: the calm, all-seeing centre of the maelstrom.
How do we achieve this state? By recognising our true span of control, which extends only to our thoughts, feelings and actions. That is the sovereign territory over which we alone rule, should we choose to. And how do we govern this space? By practicing four simple virtues: seeking wisdom, showing courage, dispensing justice and exercising moderation.
From the repetition of these practices, we receive powerful psychological rewards, like sustainable self-esteem and a profound sense of mastery. We are also better able to support others.
Suggested excercise: Think of yourself as a monarch, newly ascended to the throne of a promising but troubled country. How would you rule it? What laws would you enact? How would you treat your subjects? What would your policy be toward other nations? How would you want history to remember your reign?
2. Practice ‘premeditatio malorum’ and anticipate and mitigate problems
“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck…All human possibilities should be before your eyes.” – Seneca
Premeditatio malorum roughly translates as the premeditation of evils. In modern mental health language, this practice might be called ‘negative visualisation’ or ‘depressive realism’. I simply call it good sense.
One way of coping with a crisis is to imagine its most extreme form – to stare into the abyss, to summon monsters. Cultivating a worst-case scenario mentality may seem a depressing practice, but it serves a positive purpose: preparation for life’s trials. If we plan for the worse and it transpires, we are prepared for it; if the worst doesn’t happen, we are pleasantly surprised. Either way we avoid being fate’s playthings.
We can even extend the exercise to everyday life, by expecting little and desiring less. That way life rarely disappoints, and it often delights. If we expect too much of life and receive too little – especially during a crisis – we will experience the opposite psychological experience: a debilitating sense of disappointment. That is best avoided.
Suggested exercise: Imagine a storm is coming. The weather forecast suggests it will be severe, perhaps one of the worst on record. How will you prepare your home for this onslaught and its aftermath? What steps will you take to protect your property and minimise damage? Then think about how you will feel if the storm passes, and only superficial damage has been done due to your wise actions.
3. Say ‘It is returned’ and turn loss and grief into gratitude
“Never in any case say I have lost such a thing but say ‘I have returned it’” – Epictetus
We live in an age of escalating losses. COVID-19 cost many lives and curtailed our freedom of movement and choice; the Ukraine war is resulting in a loss of life and energy security; the cost-of-living crisis is causing a loss of financial stability at individual, national and international levels. How do we deal with the psychological impact of such serious and successive losses?
Stoicism provides an answer: changing our attitude to ownership. When we feel a strong sense of control over people, possessions, or personal destiny we are much more vulnerable to their loss. We experience it as a profound existential shock. But in truth we own nothing. Everything we have is borrowed. At the end of our lives, all we possess must be returned to its true maker – whether we see that entity as God, fate, or physics.
How does this Stoic perspective help us? By reminding us that time is our most precious resource and that we should spend it wisely, for we do not know how much of it we have. Cultivating that attitude makes us more