The Art of Stoicism ~ How embracing adversity can foster personal growth and a greater sense of gratitude

Napoleon Holbrook crossing the Greenbrier River on a cable to pick up his mail – “the way it was.” Photo courtesy of B.J. Gudmundsson, Preserving Pocahontas

Ken Springer
Watoga Trail Report

“The most stupid purchase I made this year was buying a 2020 calendar.”
~ Anonymous

A previous Watoga Trail Report about the history of the Workman Cabin considered the lives of its occupants. The Workmans lived a subsistence existence in the late 1800s – hunting game and ginseng and planting crops in the few places where it was possible to do so.

Napoleon Holbrook took up residence in the cabin with his wife and infant child during the last years of the Great Depression.  They, too, lived a life that few of us in the age of constant comfort would want to return to.

When I think of Nap, I think of an old black and white photograph depicting him crossing the Greenbrier River in the dead of winter on a cable. He had hiked down the mountain and pulled himself across the river to pick up the mail. Of course, this entailed a return trip on foot through the snow. All of this strenuous work merely to retrieve the mail!

Nap would probably not have given a second thought to such an experience, though, it was part and parcel of daily life just a generation ago. Were these harsh living conditions to be imposed upon us now, most of us would consider it traumatic.

So, how are we faring in this pandemic?

Yes, it is an unprecedented situation for us baby-boomers and those of younger years. Except for personal tragedies, when in our lifetimes has our collective metal been tested to this degree?

Do we accept the inconveniences of this pandemic and do what we can instead of doing what we want?

Can we take this opportunity to be stoic for the first time in our contented lives?  Adopt the type of stoicism that says that we do not have to be victims when something terrible happens to us? We can choose to deal with the bad things, just as we do with the joys of life.

Do we see this current tribulation as a time to help others and maybe learn something new about ourselves? Perhaps even have a growth spurt in our way of thinking and behaving?

Several decades ago, you couldn’t drive for five minutes down any road without seeing a bumper sticker proclaiming “Sh** Happens.”

Aside from the crude choice of a word, the phrase is right on the money; the unexpected is to be expected. The uncertainty of our future is true for each and every one of us.

Entropy is the unavoidable law of the universe. The nature of all existence is based upon unpredictability and a gradual decline into disorder. Thinking that we have complete control of our future is a naïve delusion at best.

Just as it has always been in the past, humanity will experience all manner of catastrophes going forward. There will be wars, pandemics, epidemics, tsunamis, earthquakes, and, someday, a large asteroid will once again slam into this planet, causing untold damage.

These things will happen. You can put money on it.

When we find ourselves in the midst of challenging times, that is the time to ask ourselves if things could be worse. Chances are the answer is a resounding “Yes,” things could be much worse.

As of this writing, nearly two million people have died from COVID 19 worldwide. Death is a fate far worse than taking measures to protect yourself, your family and doing the same to protect your neighbors and friends.

Imagine if you had lived in London during the Blitz of 1940 and 1941. For eight months, the Germans made near-nightly bombing raids over London in an attempt to bomb the Brits into submission. They vastly underestimated the resilience and grit of the British people. 

Without complaint, the residents of London and nearby targeted cities would, upon hearing the sirens, head to bomb shelters situated in the underground train stations. There in the cold, damp, and cramped shelters, they waited out each night among strangers.

At daybreak each morning, they headed back to their homes and apartments to see if they had survived the bombs.

One bombing raid on December 29, 1940, stood out from the rest. The first wave of bombers arrived in the early evening, dropping 100,000 incendiary devices designed to start fires.  With the city now lit up by fires, the next wave of bombers could easily locate the civilian targets.

After London was ablaze, bombers dropped thousands of 500-pound bombs that leveled large swaths of the city.

We might expect the people living through this nightly hell to be traumatized to the point of paralysis. Not so. The Brits became even more determined to resist the Nazis.

Many left the safety of the shelters to work above ground at night on fire brigades and rescue teams, some as young as 13 years old.

Interviews recorded by the BBC during the Blitz show a people who had the temperament to accept what was happening to them. Not with a whining resignation, but as an empowering motivation to survive and triumph over evil.

Most families arranged for their children to be sheltered with families outside the strike zone. Those children remaining with their families remember feeling secure because of the deportment of their parents.

Considering those facing more significant hardships than ourselves may lead to gratitude, the gift of grace. The beauty of gratitude is that it makes optimism possible and engenders deeper concern for others.

Gratitude squares us with where we stand compared to others less fortunate. Gratitude breeds compassion and empathy, something that is becoming increasingly rarer in our world.

The pandemic has claimed many lives and played havoc with our economy, and that is a tragedy to be sure. But most of us still have unlimited electronic access to friends and family. We can still entertain and amuse ourselves with movies, music and books.

We still spend these winter days in a warm and comfortable home. We do not have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. Our water still flows when we open a valve – when we flip a switch, the lights still come on. The Pocahontas Times will continue to provide us with vital information about our community.

Smartphones and Zoom keep us connected in ways that would seem like magic just a generation ago. Books and movies are available electronically just by touching a screen.

All essential workers, including grocery store workers and veterinarians, risk their lives going into work each day for our benefit. These brave souls should be applauded; they are the real heroes of this stressful experience.

Many of you have found this pandemic a time to slow down and take stock of your life. Some have learned new skills while home-sheltering, such as learning to play an instrument or teaching new skills to others online.

Others have realized that their lives before the pandemic were cluttered with various commitments and organizational meetings, leaving little time to pursue other interests.

They vow to reduce such involvements post-pandemic and spend more time riding their bike, hiking, perfecting a new recipe, or just taking life a bit slower than before.

It is unthinkable not to take the precautions necessary to protect friends, family and others. You may know someone who has a predisposing health condition who may not survive a bout with COVID 19. This pandemic is a time to proceed with patience, kindness and concern for others.

What we carry away from this pandemic is up to us. What we do or don’t do is in our hands. We are the author of our own story about living in a time of crisis.

“We may not be able to change some of the important facts about our lives right now, but we can change how we experience them.” ~ Shankar Vedantam

I want to take this opportunity to wish all of the readers of The Pocahontas Times a Happy New Year – and one in which COVID 19 becomes just a memory.

Ken Springer

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