The phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” is an interesting one, as it originated in Britain during WW2, and the British are renowned for their stiff upper lip during that period, and are still perceived by other cultures to this day as somewhat unemotional.
Perhaps there is a lesson or two that can be learned from examining the “Keep Calm and Carry On” saying more closely, and seeing what conclusions we can draw.
After all, all the historically famous Stoic philosophers have always admired individuals who could continue their daily life normally, despite events happening that would usually be labelled catastrophes.
This idea is epitomised by the follow quote from Epictetus:
I must die. But must I die bawling?
This is such an important concept in Stoicism, that this quote is even featured on the back cover of the Penguin edition of Enchiridion of Epictetus. This has surely been done to give the potential reader an immediate insight into what Stoicism is all about.
The interesting thing about the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, is that it was never actually officially seen by the public. This message is so strong, that the poster was only going to be released in case of the invasion of Britain my the German armed forces.
The idea that one of the principle aims in life is to keep calm, or attain and maintain tranquility, is as old as man itself. Multiple religions and philosophies expound the benefits of tranquility, and while we may feel that this does not need to be explicitly proved, I would like to attempt it here.
After all, tranquility doesn’t seem a very ambitious life plan, and yet it’s the probably the path that will help us enjoy life to the fullest, versus having an aim in life to acquire wealth, fame, or simply chasing consumer goods.
I think it’s best to define the Stoic meaning of tranquility before we move forward, because “being tranquil”, does on first hearing sound a little boring. Am I meant to sit cross legged in a white room full of cushions and speak slowly?
The tranquility that we are looking for is not the type of tranquility that might be brought on my anti-depressants or tranquillisers. That would be a sad existence!
It’s quite literally about keeping calm in the face of adversity, because you have the knowledge that you’ve taken care of everything that you have under control and for the rest, well, we might as well “let the chips fall where they may”, to quote the infamous Tyler Durden from Fight Club.
You would be considered mad, or at least intelligent people would consider you mad, if you were to get angry at a roulette machine for not giving you the numbers you want. It’s out of your control, and nothing you do, while keeping within the rules of the game, can change that. Stoicism advocates taking this same attitude to subjects like death. Remember, you will die someday, but must you go out kicking and screaming, or with a dignified note of acceptance?
Of course, generally it is preferable to have life over death, but not in all cases. Many people commit suicide, in fact it is the leading cause of death in this moment in time for men aged 18 to 45 worldwide. While it’s a complex subject, clearly many people choose death over life, because they feel that life is not worth living. I’m not advocating suicide here, but I’m also not ruling it out of the realm of possibility.
So the tranquility that we are after, is the one where our life is free of negative emotions, and full of positive ones. The type of life that one can be said to enjoy. There are a host of daily exercises that we can do to help us gain this.
If you think about it, this is actually quite difficult to achieve. A life that is free of negative emotions. Think of how easily we experience frustration, anger, jealousy, etc.
All it takes is for our coffee not to be hot enough, for someone to have a minor success that we haven’t had, and these emotions begin to kick in.
Chapter 12 of the Enchiridion of Epictetus gives us a solution:
If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: “If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have no income; if I don’t correct my servant, he will be bad.” For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.
Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquillity, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.
It’s simple. Start with the little things, and work your way up.
However these is an issue, and this is whether we should just “Keep Calm and Carry On”. The British government thought that this was a good strategy back in the 1940s, but perhaps not keeping calm is actually a good idea?
After all, isn’t a sense of urgency a great motivator? Yes, it is, but while a sense of urgency is fantastic way to get that paper finished the day before it’s due, or to complete the project that is running late, it’ not particularly great at long term projects, which tend to be the most meaningful things we do.
Generally, nothing that has much value is created quickly. To give a trivial example, if I continue to steadily write on this website, in twenty years it will have a huge value (at least for me), far more than if I just decided to write two thousand essays in a year.
So keeping calm and working steadily is what creates long term results that are meaningful and promote real change, not quick fixes that get you you a short term result, while sacrificing long term benefits. We need to learn to view life in a manner that isn’t disrupted by the day to day noise, but with a focus on a higher level timeline.