With drunk and flirty coworkers at holiday parties, rowdy relatives at family gatherings, and the inherent foibles of holiday travels, there is a never ending parade of potential headaches in between the festivities. The least of these anxieties is battling our own expectations about 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, founded in ancient Greece, is a practice that emphasizes developing virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, in order to flourish. It is a way of finding inner tranquility by reflecting on our emotions before we act. 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 former United States President 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.
Temptations for libations and sweets abound this time of year, 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. 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. Let go of the past, don't awfulize about the future, and focus on what you can do and control right now.
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.
The Stoics were fans of thinking about death. Not for the sake of morbidity, but rather to help us appreciate our time and to make the best use of it. How would you spend your holidays differently if they were your last? How would you spend them if you knew that they were the last holidays for your loved ones?
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. Whether we end up on Santa's nice or naughty list, we can always be thankful for what and who is already in our lives. 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.