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Illustrated by Oscar Bray

Fast Food for Thought: Getting Over 2020

What Stoicism can do to help us through a really rough year.

Nov 8, 2020

A friend of mine once told me about a peculiar game he and some friends back home used to play. The game itself was simple: one would randomly walk up to a friend and punch them, pinch them or even make them drop the expensive Starbucks coffee cup they had bought, before proceeding to yell: “Stoicism!” The injured friend then had to swallow up their anger, hurt, frustration and just move on with their day.
Thinking back on our current year, it seems 2020 has been nothing but a big game of “Stoicism!” Be it on the worldstage, on campus or in some of our personal lives, it seems that the punches just keep on coming. Indeed, memes have been quick to compile the series of unfortunate events that was 2020, from rumors of World War III, to ecological catastrophes, to the ongoing pandemic, a list to which we NYU Abu Dhabi students can add the loss of our stipends and study-aways.
In these “unprecedented times,” it might be helpful to reflect on the ancient wisdom of Stoicism, a philosophy espoused most notably by Greek philosopher and former slave Epictetus and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoics compel us to develop and exercise self-control to overcome anger, anxiety, despair and other negative emotions. As such, Stoicism has become a recurring theme in self-help articles and a handy philosophy to anyone starting a game of “Getting Over It,” another game that does not pull its punches.
“Getting Over It” is a game quite similar to “Stoicism!” in that it is very cruel to those who choose to partake in it. In it, you play as a man trapped in a metal cauldron, trying to climb a mountain only using a sledgehammer. Your arduous climb is accompanied by commentary from the game developer, explaining the philosophy behind it and taunting you for your failures. Furthermore, the game has no checkpoints and the levels are designed in such a way that the player is always at risk of losing all progress and falling all the way back to where they first started. But if Stoicism can get you to the top of that mountain, then it can probably get you through 2020.
One essential aspect of Stoicism is its distinction between the external and internal world, between things that do not depend on us and things that we can control. A global pandemic is part of the external world; our attitude toward it, part of the internal one. In “Getting Over It,” the external world comprises the obstacles ahead of you, the trees, buildings and steep hills you must surmount; the internal world, on the other hand, is the sledgehammer you control, the range of movements you can accomplish with it, and — lest that range be severely limited — your attitude when you slip and fall all the way down. This distinction is designed to free us from anxiety. Indeed, we often worry about and curse in vain at things we cannot control. A stoic who falls off the mountain can simply change his attitude to acceptance and promptly swing the sledgehammer once more.
Another trick up our stoic sleeves, is negative visualization, which can be of great aid when facing hardships. As the name suggests, negative visualization encourages us to imagine the worst that could happen. When you move your mouse the wrong way and lose a few meters of hard-earned progress, close your eyes and imagine yourself stumbling all the way back to the beginning. And if you do end up stumbling all the way back to the beginning, close your eyes and imagine losing a friend, or getting hit by a car, or having your leg broken by your master as a kid and then getting exiled from Rome, forced to live a lonely life with few possessions, as was the case with Epictetus. Simply put, negative visualization tells you that things can always be worse, and, by doing so, invites you to appreciate the things you already have.
One last tip in the stoic handbook is to give yourself goals, not necessarily to achieve them, but as an excuse to enjoy and improve yourself. When playing “Getting Over It,” your goal is to reach the top of the mountain, yes, but your focus should not be on that destination, but rather on the journey itself. Enjoy the newly acquired finger dexterity from constantly moving your mouse around. Enjoy the insightful commentary that the game creator shares with you from time to time. Enjoy the satisfaction of climbing up each tricky section, no matter how inconsequential it is in the grand scheme of reaching the top.
Armed with these principles, one can safely dive right into the game… or not. While a stoic attitude can be quite handy at times, I am still unsure whether one acquires it or is born with it. In any case, playing a game like “Getting Over It” or living through a year like 2020 would have probably proved challenging even to a Marcus Aurelius. So practise negative visualization, focus on the journey, but also take breaks and surround yourself with good friends: for they too can do wonders for your internal world.
Karim Mohamed Boudlal is a columnist. Email him at
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