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From Vol. 4, Issue 11, November 2022

Thoughts from a hurricane


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“We are not apart from or outside nature: we are within it and subject to its majestic laws.”

A little while ago, my family and I hunkered down in our living room as Hurricane Ian swept across the Florida peninsula. If you’ve never experienced a hurricane, I can tell you there’s no better time to be a Stoic! There’s nothing like a 150 mile-perhour force of nature to concentrate the mind on what really matters. All the Stoic wisdom I’ve studied over the past few years came bouncing brightly to mind as the wind outside swirled and howled. I’d like to share a few of those hurricaneinspired thoughts with you.

1. Your character is what matters most

As Stoics, we often talk about virtue, character, and moral excellence as our ultimate goal in life. We know (intellectually) this is true, but in everyday life it’s easy to get bogged down with all those distractions our culture and lifestyle provide. Career, finances, reputation, pleasure, buying stuff, going places, doing things, staying busy. It’s easy to lose your grip on the reason for pursuing a virtuous life when the good times are rolling.

But when a natural disaster rolls in, all the unnecessary distractions fall away, and you’re left with only the essentials of your life to think about. What good have I done in the world? Who have I loved? What would I leave behind me? These are the questions that matter when the tempest is upon you. The outer tempest calms the inner turbulence, leaving room for only essential thoughts. This is the pure simplicity Marcus Aurelius speaks of: Strive to be simple. Keep only what’s necessary. Eliminate the thoughts that don’t really matter.

In fact, a hurricane is a shortcut to purifying your value judgments. With millions of pounds of atmospheric pressure hovering overhead, all extraneous judgments are squeezed out of the mind. There is no longer room for such thoughts as: What do other people think of me? Will this or that project be successful? Does my outfit/hair/selfie/house look good? These thoughts are clearly revealed to be fraudulent – not really what they claim to be. They are imposters, crowding out the true stars of the show: your character and the connections you build with other people.

It is these stars that shine throughout the darkest night and the deepest storm. Like almost magical beacons, they gleam despite the fog and shadows, magnetically pulling all your thoughts into a small, piercing point. These unwavering lights – your character and the depth of your love – are the ultimate lodestars of your life. Everything else gets shuffled off in the storm, blown away like so much dust. When the outer winds are churning, your own inner goods, lit from within, burn more steadfast and brighter than ever.

2. Live in agreement with nature

As the weather roiled around my home, I spent a long night listening to the shrieks and growls just outside our door. That famous Stoic dictum, living in agreement with nature, takes on a new meaning when nature empties itself onto your roof in lifethreatening gusts. No amount of YouTube viewing can prepare you for a face-to-face encounter with the brutal potency of Nature at its full strength.

In daily life, we tend to have a sanitized view of what the universe is capable of. While running errands and streaming Netflix from the couch, we forget the simple, unpredictable, raw power of the cosmos. We stroll around, full of ourselves and our meagre human accomplishments, thinking we have things figured out. But the universe says otherwise. We are not apart from or outside nature: we are within it and subject to its majestic laws. Hurricanes are good at reminding us of this.

When nature calls – by flood, blizzard, fire, or drought – we have no choice but to live in agreement with it. We humans aren’t nearly as in control as we pretend to be. Despite our civilizational advances, we don’t call the shots around here. We are both beholden to and inseparable from the world around us. Any moment could be our last, and we’d better make peace with our condition as soon as possible.

The next day, the winds finally settled down and the sun came out again, as it always does. We assessed the damage around us – a few downed limbs, a toppled fence, debris everywhere – and got to work cleaning up. Nature beamed out warmly once again, and I tucked my hurricane-inspired thoughts into the back of my notebook, ready for the next time around.

Brittany Polat, author of Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged, holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics but researches and writes about Stoic psychology and philosophy. Brittany's latest project is Living in Agreement, where she applies her lifelong interest in human nature to the discourse and practice of inner excellence.