The cycle would be almost humorous by now if it were not so sad. Politicians who have sat idly by, not doing their jobs to address the vexing, pressing problems of our time, rush in when tragedy strikes. Whether it’s a natural disaster that caught a city off guard, or another senseless mass shooting, these folks are there—or rather are there on Twitter—to offer their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims. Then, of course, the crowd shoots back, “That’s not enough!”
Let us unravel this according to the Stoics. First, there’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers, per se, particularly if they are heartfelt. However, they aren’t remotely sufficient to solve most political or social problems. And yet, yelling at the people offering them is its own hollow form of virtue signaling too.
While the Stoics did talk about the importance of acceptance and about our limited control of the world around us, they would reject this modern rejection of our own agency. They would be disappointed in our learned helplessness. The obstacles of life—be they in politics or the environment or the actions of evil doers—require action. They require effort. They require that we seize what’s in our control to affect change and improve the status quo.
When Rome’s borders were threatened, Marcus Aurelius didn’t simply send his prayers to the citizens who were killed. No, he led an army to defend them. When a plague struck Rome, he didn’t flee the city and then come back to speak at funerals. He braved the terrible conditions, doing everything he could to stop the dying. Whether he was successful or not is almost secondary to the fact that he at least tried.
Because that’s what a Stoic does. We take action. We organize. We vote. We try to solve problems. We try to prevent problems from happening again. And if the leaders we’ve elected aren’t going to help with that—meaning they’re part of the problem themselves—we don’t just yell or complain about it and demand that they do better…we set about solving for that too. We do better. We make sure they do too.
No one is coming to save us. But we can save ourselves.