Frankly, I didn’t have the best of weeks this week.
I found myself questioning my self-worth based on perceptions of having fallen short of certain achievements. It’s pointless to judge yourself solely by outcomes of course, particularly those that aren’t entirely under your own control–as the Stoics would put it. But to understand that basic principle is one thing, while applying it in everyday life is quite something different. So, I ended up in a detrimental spiral of negative thoughts and emotions which unsurprisingly resulted in bad sleep, a foul mood, a shortness of temper, and an unwarranted harshness towards others that, of course, only added fuel to the fire.
Saturday morning, after another 5/10 night’s sleep, I was absolutely not in the mood for running. But I nevertheless dragged myself downstairs, put on an old pair of trainers, and began to slowly trod into the darkness. The first thing I noticed, after I had overcome most of my drowsy repulsion, was the clarity of the night sky. The slender sickle that was the moon hung amidst a field of bright stars, and not a single cloud or even a hint of high fog obstructed the view. I turned southward and uphill into the woods after a few kilometers of steadily jogging along. The road that leads into the forest is paved only as far as the last farmhouse, which was still shrouded in darkness and an eerie silence. Beyond that, the track quickly turns into a gravel path, then it’s mostly hard-packed earth dotted with the occasional tuft of scrubby grass. From there on, the ground is increasingly scarred with deep furrows caused by the heavy machines used for harvesting lumber.
Where a small creek, which originates underground somewhere higher up, reaches the surface, I turned onto a narrow hiking trail that runs along the steep riverbed and back towards civilization. Racing downhill, between the trees towering above and the rivulet steadily splashing on one side, my world was reduced to the tiny spot of brown, gray, and black that my mediocre headlamp managed to illuminate. Among half-buried roots and slippery rocks lay muddy patches of soil so damp that they pulled and dragged at my feet, repeatedly throwing my body off balance. I had to focus so intensely on my immediate surroundings that I even missed a crossing and had to climb back uphill for a while. Despite all the concentration that my mind exerted, I still tripped over a slippery rock. Out of breath, I was suddenly stumbling towards the hard floor. My hopping and flailing must have made for quite a scene, but of course there was no one around to watch for miles. How I finally managed to catch myself I’m not entirely sure, but I somehow avoided a painful impact–barely.
The sky was still mostly black, but pregnant with a hint of the darkest shade of blue, and the forest was completely silent apart from the splashing of the river on my left and the small noise of the wind in my ears. One careful step after the next brought me down along the creek onto a widening path which led towards more stable ground. Only then did my mind reluctantly release the tight grip with which it had clung to the control my every movement. It had been so completely captured by the task of safely putting one foot in front of the other–albeit fast and downhill–that the troubles which had caused all that worrying throughout the week now seemed strangely distant. The sun was finally coming up while I slowly jogged back home, and all of a sudden the sky was drenched in the corniest shades from pink to violet to baby blue.
As uncomfortable–and unnecessarily dangerous–parts of that run might have been, I felt surprisingly refreshed afterwards. The mental frame around the challenges I was grappling with all week had suddenly shifted, as had my attitude towards them. What’s really under our control, according to contemporary interpretations of Stoicism, are only a handful of fundamentals: Our character, our choices, our beliefs. Everything else that’s going on in the universe, and in particular whether or not we hit our narrow goals, is ultimately not up to us. But how we respond to inevitable setbacks very much is. As is whether or not we follow through on our commitments, whether we’re true to our inner values, whether we’re honest, dependable, and caring in our relationships with others. Regardless how often we stumble and fall, say the Stoics, as long as we’re doing so with a virtuous attitude we have nothing to blame ourselves for.