Senior Column | A Stoic’s guide to surviving high school

The magnolias are blooming again, alla fresca dining is returning in full force, and I am graduating from high school. A pivotal time like this—even without a pandemic backdrop—warrants at least a little reflection. And who better to turn to than the ancient Greeks? They seem rather well-versed in the art of contemplation. Recently, I have been enjoying the stoics because they make me feel less anxiety-riddled about life and the whole “shuffling off” part of this mortal coil… And I felt the need to share a stoic perspective that resonated with me and that I wish I had encountered earlier in high school: The greatest enemy to man, and therefore ETHS students, is nostalgia and hope—the anxiety surrounding untouchable dimensions of time. An unhealthy attachment to the past, whether it’s longing for lost Paradises or resenting a 65 percent on a calculus test, stunts progression. Likewise, focusing on hope detaches us from the present. The stoics, instead, encourage goal setting, Roman philosopher Seneca famously said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” The word “hope” involves no real action. It has no underlying connotation of planning or doing. Rather, it represents an untouched dream that remains suspended in that unfulfilled state. These two dimensions, the past and the present, are inaccessible to us now. They cease to exist or have never existed at all. They are immaterial. 

So why harp on about these philosophical concepts? Well, I spent the better part of my last four years of high school obsessing over college, meticulously choosing my courses and extracurriculars to curate the most palatable and impressive image of myself—hoping, in other words. I never truly savored reality, the present moment, and you never will either if you do everything in service of college. 

I’m not here to tell you to “be yourself” and “follow your passion,” because let’s be real, very few of us high schoolers have constructed an unimpeachable sense of self or pinpointed a true calling. I am just here to give you a few employable tips about how to, in the true stoic fashion, focus on the present and manage high school stress. 

1) Firstly, stay off of College Confidential or any comparable forums. Unless, of course, you are a masochist who actively searches for ways to ramp up the college frenzy and tear down your self worth.

2) Don’t participate in a ludicrous number of activities. It is unnecessarily taxing, and you’ll want to quit five out of seven of them by junior year. Focus on the ones that bring you the most joy. 

3) For my humanities people, it is not worth burdening yourself with honors math if you’re not a math wiz. And that goes for Chem/Phys too. If you genuinely relish a STEM challenge, then by all means, go for it! However, if you’re like me and seem to be physically unable to memorize the unit circle, perhaps steer clear of such coursework—I wish I had.

4) Get off your phones. One day, my screen time was a whopping eleven hours. If I could remember that day, I would most likely report back that it was unfruitful. 

5) Lastly, if you can, spend some more time with your parents. Parents can be such constants. It is easy for them to fade into the background of our own whirlwind lives. Before you realize it, however, high school will be over and you won’t see much of them anymore. Acknowledge that they too are finite beings, and that every moment with them counts. 

None of the advice that I am offering is easy to adopt. There is a major gap between stoic theory and praxis nowadays. We have been socialized, by living in a capitalist country, to fixate on upward mobility. The rapid digitization of our world distracts us from reality and hampers us from truly inhabiting the present moment. However, by attempting to ground ourselves with the counsel of some ancient Greeks, we may be able to develop what Nietzsche coined (in entirely stoic mode), amor fati: the love of reality for itself.