Finding peace of mind in a disquieting age

March 21, 2021 11:00 am

A fisherman ends the day on Lake Como, Italy. (Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi via Unsplash)

Often our troubles are so intense that we think of them every waking minute, longing for peace and quiet, a lull, however temporary, so we can regain our balance.

There is no peace in the disquiet of pandemic and partisan politics.

There are two main meanings of peace. One is the absence of war. The other is freedom from anxiety and inner conflict.

Advertisers offer a range of products promising to induce peace. One report lists several elixirs, including “StressBalls gumdrops” and “Stress Comfort gummies.”

Peace involves the conscience: the inner knowing that you have the wherewithal to meet challenges as they arrive. This is true “peace of mind,” which often requires action. That is why activists stage peace marches, a term that harkens the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The social concept of peace is associated with the disenfranchised. In fact, the Greek philosopher Epictetus (c. 50-135 AD) whose name connotes “property” was born a slave and eventually obtained his freedom after the death of Nero in Rome.

An essay titled “Epictetus: The Calm Switch” distills his stoic philosophy, noting others may control our social status or wealth —and even our bodies — but they cannot impinge on our will. He gained this insight as a slave whose owner broke his limbs, forcing him to focus on the mind.

“No harm can come to the will when we know the will alone is ours. All we need to do is not entrust our peace of mind to anybody or anything but ourselves.”

Even though John Adams, second president of the United States, called his mansion “Peace Field,” his wife Abigail often admonished him about the status of women. In a 1776 letter, she wrote: “I cannot say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives.” She added that women eventually would be seen as equals because “we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”

Abigail Adams’ prophecy gave her peace of mind.

Dr. Martin Luther King had similar notions of freedom and equality, inspiring peace marches. In his legendary 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, he led thousands of demonstrators to the state capitol to affirm voting rights.

In his speech at the conclusion of the march, he proclaimed, “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.”

In the past year, we have seen protests associated with politics, policing and racial unrest. Our everyday challenges may be more personal, including divorce, unemployment, domestic violence and disease. But Epictetus, Abigail Adams and Dr. King would tell you to harness peace of mind that you can rise to the occasion.

“Some people mistakenly believe that peace of mind is something that you only experience when things in your life are trouble-free, but that’s not true,” writes psychologist Julie K. Jones. Empowered people develop focus, she states, losing fear of how to respond to problems and, in the process, gaining control of thoughts “to live in a state of constant peace.”

Jones recommends practicing meditation, limiting social media, letting go of the past, choosing battles carefully, keeping a journal and being less prone to offense — practices that intensify focus and filter distractions.

When we achieve such a state, we can tap into our conscience, the still small voice within us that distinguishes right from wrong and compels us to act, to judge and yes, at times, to march.

But, according to Epictetus, we must first ascertain what is and isn’t in our control. We own our opinions, pursuits, desires and actions. But we are not in control of our property, reputation, accidents or actions of adversaries.

When others attempt to control, demean or deceive us, Epictetus advises us to confront our fears. “You are but an appearance” he states, “and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.”

The founders of this country did not see the British Empire as invincible. Abigail Adams and Dr. King did not see inequality as insurmountable.

Neither should you be overwhelmed by the disquieting aspects of life. They won’t be dispelled with stress-reducing gummies but will be less formidable with focus and commitment instilling peace of mind.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.