So far, I would say my longest and most tumultuous period of rainfall started soon after the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. On one pandemic morning I woke up at 11 a.m. and trudged my way down the stairs with yet another completely unscheduled day ahead of me, characteristic of the time. I remember going to my kitchen where I could look out the window, watching the scene through what felt like a blurry film for which I wasn’t sure whether to blame my swollen, lazy morning eyes or my foggy, lazy morning brain. Throughout those couple of months, I couldn’t rid myself of the question: What on earth am I doing and why?
It was in one of those moments that I recalled a quote by a Stoic, Epictetus, that I heard in my ancient philosophy class: “What upsets you is not things themselves, but your judgements about these things.” Epictetus seemed to have a precise grasp of my dilemma and a remedy. I had been making judgments about what my situation should be like. But if I valued the situation for what it could be — an opportunity to move through life at a slower pace — then there would be no problem. That’s when I found the podcast “The Daily Stoic,” and became one of 1.5 million people to follow @dailystoic on Instagram. That is so cool, I thought, that a philosophy about peace and letting go of control is becoming so mainstream.
After a while, I could trust Amazon to recommend titles that were aligned with the kind of life I wanted to live. I bought “The Power of Now” and “Atomic Habits.” My cousin bought me “Untamed.” My best friend bought me “The Untethered Soul.” We were all in our own separate spheres, hopping from sub-genre to sub-genre within the world of self-help. I thought it was all so beautiful: how we were investing in ourselves so earnestly.
My love of self-help became deeper, more intense, about one year after the pandemic started, when letting go of what was not in my control stopped being so easy. My younger sister fell into depression first. Then it was my mom, then most of my closest friends. One of my best friends told me he had been seriously considering taking his own life. Later that month, someone I had met through my on-campus job, someone I had mentored in the past, took their own life.
“What upsets you is not things themselves, but your judgements about these things;” it had a different ring to it now. I tried to control the thoughts that were causing me distress, but my body seemed to be rebelling against my efforts. I hated that I couldn’t look at my circumstances from an unaffected perspective. Clearly, Stoicism alone wouldn’t do. It was time to find something with which to supplement that belief system.
“You’re actually not a mess at all. You’re just a feeling person in a messy world.”
Enter: Glennon Doyle. I could not have been more grateful to the friend who sent me this quote. With two million followers on Instagram, two New York Times best-sellers, a podcast called “We Can Do Hard Things” and many feature interviews, Glennon Doyle is a gold mine of self-help content. She claims that being sensitive is a superpower, that it means you are simply a person who cares deeply in a world full of injustice. When a sad look in the eyes of my mom or a numb tone in the voice of my sister scared me into panic, I could now swiftly walk to my room, collect my phone, put on my headphones and cry to the latest episode of “We Can Do Hard Things.” Her words, dense with pessimism, made me feel more understood, more hopeful, than anything else.
I only stayed in the mental space that first drew me to Doyle for a few months. My sister and my mom had started taking medication, the people around me were returning to their lives, and I had school to look forward to. I started to no longer need her confirmation that the world was cruel. I wanted things to feel light again. There I was now, sitting on the train to New Haven. I felt my heartbeat and my face warm with nerves, unsure about whether I could still focus or care about school, or be social or likable. I pulled out my new copy of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” which felt freeing and fun in a way that Doyle and the Stoics never did.
So there I still was, hopping from sub-genre to sub-genre like the other 85 percent of similar consumers; floating from quote to quote, affirmation to affirmation, explanation to explanation, analysis to analysis, deeper meaning to deeper meaning, strategy to strategy. To be introspective, to be grounded, to be thoughtful, to be ethical, to be enlightened, to be wise — does it require a piece of each of these philosophies? Is it dependent on your current state of mind? Is there a point where it stops? After all this time reading, the absence of answers still doesn’t seem to matter to me.
Since starting school again, though, I’ve become busy with responsibilities and have grown apart from the quotes that cared for me last year. I do miss them and the relationship we shared. No one had ever paid attention to me quite like their writers had. No one has been as patient, as empathetic, as consistent, as they all were.
Even so, things feel simpler without them, at least right now. It could be that I’m distracted, that I don’t have the time to reflect. Either way it’s true what they say, that it can be good to be on your own; that it can be better to go without someone to confirm for you that little suspicion we all have; that what is most important, above all else, right now, is you.