Letters from the Pandemic 25: Dear GLS family


Dear GLS family
by Jordan Johnston

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Seneca, Letters from a Stoic (Penguin, 1969)

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times,” said Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, known to posterity as Seneca. The Spaniard, who rose to prominence in the Roman Empire, wrote those words in 65 CE. He knew what he was talking about. He wrote Letters from a Stoic, a collection of essays on living well, at a time when uprisings, natural disasters, and regime changes were ever-present threats.

Seneca advised his readers to cultivate lifestyles free of luxury but rich in learning. When your needs are simple, he said, and your mind is in good order, you are in a position to take whatever the fates bring you. Disaster. The loss of a home or of a loved one. Imprisonment. The self-sufficient Stoic can deal with all of these things.

When we read his work, my classmates and I found this ancient advice pleasantly relevant to the comfortable and secure 2019 world of Instagram influencers, all-inclusive resorts, and Weight Watchers.

A year later, that world had changed. Grocery store shelves were empty, the markets were in freefall, and each day the news brought fresh impossibilities as — now confined to our homes — we tracked the spread of a frightening new disease. I found myself pulling Seneca off the shelf again. Now that I too was living in an unstable and unpredictable world, I felt like revisiting his work.

Spanish coin, 1997

Seneca helped me to adjust to the new reality in which many of the pleasures I had taken for granted — dining out, going to theatres, pick-up hockey, travel — were unavailable. In accordance with his advice, I have learned to find pleasure in simpler things: going for walks, writing, cultivating the garden, the company of my wife and of a few close friends. If the suffocating restrictions of the early days come back, I will be ready for them.

In April, I will graduate from this program, and that will be bittersweet. My studies have brought purpose and stability to my life in this time of flux. Great thinkers like Seneca have been my constant companions, as have my brilliant classmates and professors, and I will miss them. But my bookshelves are now stuffed with the works of wise people, and I look forward to referring to these new friends when the need arises.

The most important lesson I have learned from my GLS studies is that there is always more to learn. Two thousand years ago, Seneca pointed out the same thing. “The perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life,” he wrote, “although even the beginnings of wisdom make life bearable.” I’m working on it.

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Jordan Johnston is an elementary school teacher in Vancouver. He will reluctantly be graduating from SFU’s Graduate Liberal Studies program in April, 2021.

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The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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