By Jeet Mehta.
With the COVID-19 pandemic seizing the world in a state of fear and panic — I thought I’d share how Stoicism might help in framing our outlook on the situation.
But why would you listen to me? First, some context.
Around this time last year, my family was in a state of panic. Within hours of landing in Canada, my grandmother had suffered a stroke. The doctors had recommended immediate surgery to try to remove the clot in her carotid arteries.
Fast forward through a whirlwind few weeks — she had successfully undergone surgery and came home. Skip ahead a month — and she was completely back to normal, happily attending weddings and playing board games late into the night.
Traumatic events like this, however, tend to produce mental damage that’s just as long-lasting (if not more) than physical damage. And often, the damage is collateral.
I’m lucky that at the age of 25, this was my first real brush with serious illness in my family. Despite the positive outcome, it shook me deeply. Something about seeing the events unfold directly in front of me struck a chord; and it generated within me an immense anxiety around cardiovascular health for the coming months.
It was around this time that I discovered Stoicism. Stoic philosophy is completely re-shaping my outlook on life, bringing clarity to the concepts I struggle with the most. Things like control, fear, illness, and death.
I’m hoping that by sharing some of my learnings in today’s context, I can help bring the same clarity to others.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a two-thousand-year-old philosophy, born out of Greece but adopted and popularized by the Romans (like a lot of Greek things). But more importantly, it’s a valuable “operating system” for life. People from all walks of life today swear by it — from Super-Bowl winning NFL coaches, athletes, former presidents, actors, entrepreneurs, authors, etc. The list of endorsers is not the point — although it does help illustrate the value and reach of its core principles.
Stoicism centres around relentlessly focusing on what you can control, and blatantly ignoring what you can’t. This seems simple and straightforward — and that’s because it is. It’s not ground-breaking. It’s not complex. It’s just really difficult to live by.
“Just keep in mind — the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have”
With that in mind, let’s explore how Stoicism applies to today’s world, and how it can help counter some of our everyday demons. We’ll do this by consulting the original “influencers” of Stoicism — people like Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Roman philosopher Seneca (“The Younger”), and slave-turned-teacher Epictetus.
Reason and Rationality
“Do you have reason?…Why then do you not use it?
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
The ancient Stoics prided themselves on being rational, objective thinkers. They believed that humanity’s greatest asset is a functional mind, and to exercise reason is the most virtuous pursuit.
COVID-19 (along with a lot of the other recent outbreaks like Ebola, Zika, etc.) have occurred in an age of abundant information. This obviously has its benefits — it’s allowed us to do things like contact tracing and significantly limit the spread of harmful agents.
At the same time, tools like the Internet have given everyone a voice (the irony of this post being an additional voice in the mix isn’t lost on me). This means misinformation spreads just as quickly (if not faster) than information. On top of this, we’re already prone to hundreds of cognitive biases that hinder our ability to think clearly.
And yet, we must try. Exercise your rationality. Be skeptical of the news you see shared online. Don’t believe everything that is sent to you on WhatsApp. Check the quality of the sources. Verify the data. And like a scientist, always be prepared to be proven wrong.
“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
Former U.S president Franklin D. Roosevelt might not have known about Stoicism, but he perfectly described it in his famous Inaugural Address (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”)
Like all other emotions, Stoics consider fear as a subjective judgement. It’s not a true, objective representation of the external environment- rather, it is a personal evaluation of external circumstances.
I’ve found that fear generally goes hand-in-hand with the concepts of uncertainty and control. We tend to fear things that we don’t know or can’t control. With endless amounts of misinformation going around, a microscopic virus fits the bill on both occasions. So, what lessons can the Stoics teach us to counter fear?
- Knowledge is power. For most people, understanding exactly how the illness works tends to diffuse its power slightly. If there are counter-measures, you’re able to inform yourself on what they are and how exactly they function. For myself last year, that meant understanding that a stroke is just the result of a loss of blood flow to the brain. With COVID-19, it means understanding things like how the virus spreads, what the symptomatic range is, and how simple measures like social distancing and hand-washing can dramatically alter the impact of the virus on a population.
- De-dramatize. Describe things as objectively as you can. This applies not only to COVID-19 and other illnesses, but also to your day-to-day life. Did you stutter in your presentation at work, or was it the worst day of your life? When we describe things as they are, it makes them seem smaller than what we make them to be. This is a habit, and it takes some time getting used to. But it drastically affects our perception and judgements on the things that happen to us. When we remove the heavy load of our emotional judgements, it improves our ability to deal with our circumstances.
- For me, this is the hardest part — letting go of control over external circumstances. This means doing everything that is under your control to not fall sick, and then willingly accepting the consequences if you do. With COVID specifically, that means following the quarantine process, washing your hands, staying home as much as you can, not touching your face, etc. After all this, it’s still possible you get infected. Be okay with that. Trying to exercise control over things that cannot be reined in is pointless, and will only heighten feelings of fear and self-pity. None of these emotions can help change your situation, or help you get better.
“If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable . . . then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.”
A lot of people, myself included, will find the above statement really difficult to swallow. For a common flu or cold, it’s easy to say, “suck it up”. However, in the context of serious illnesses or viruses like COVID-19, accepting pain or sickness so objectively is very difficult, and indeed seems cold and inhumane.
For this reason, Stoicism sometimes gets a bad “rep” for encouraging “robotic”, “stiff”, and “unemotional” personalities. However, this approach tends to make more sense if you put aside how difficult it might be to implement.
Complaining or talking about your illness will not do anything. It won’t change your circumstances, and it won’t make you feel any better. If anything, you will feel a vicious cycle of self-pity, frustration, and anger. So how do the Stoics easily accept illness?
Essentially, it means they separate their mind from their body. We tend to attribute all of our physical attributes and sicknesses as ours, i.e. “I’m sick”. The Stoics tried to create separation between their mind and their ailments by disassociating with their body, i.e. “My body is sick.” It’s a subtle difference, but it significantly changes how we view our illness and its impact on our quality of life.
Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will
This approach also aligns well with the idea of de-dramatization and describing events as objectively as possible. By doing so, we maintain a functioning, rational mind without succumbing to the “noise” of our physical health.
“Wouldn’t you think a man an utter fool if he burst into tears because he didn’t live a thousand years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding tears because he isn’t going to be alive a thousand years from now…
As it is with a play, so it is with life — what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will — only make sure that you round it off with a good ending.”
For most of our childhood, we just exist. We live in the present — without any anxieties about the future or regrets of the past. At some point in our adolescence though, we become “aware” of our own mortality— and that others, including people close to us, can die.
Death is a very scary concept. It’s hard to put into words just how final it is. People that existed yesterday have completely disappeared today. With COVID-19 making its impact in virtually every country on the planet, it’s likely that you know, or will know, someone affected by the virus. Hopefully the effect isn’t fatal — but unfortunately, that is the truth for hundreds of thousands of people globally.
Coming to terms with all of this death is very difficult — yet according to the Stoics, it’s the fear of death that’s worth condemning, not death itself. Fear is warranted for things that are uncertain — and arguably, death is, by definition, the most certain thing that exists. So, it makes no sense to fear it. Fearing or grieving over our current mortality is just as foolish as being upset over the fact that we weren’t alive 200 years ago.
At some point, you will die. At some point, everyone you know will die. And so it goes, for the billions of people who lived before us and for the billions who will follow us thereafter.
This sucks, but it is the truth. For most, death happens through some sort of illness. For some, that illness is COVID-19. The Stoics were brutally honest in their acceptance of death and its eventuality. But by doing so, they freed themselves to live each moment to the fullest.
By giving up their fear of death, the Stoics learned how to live.
“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”
Of course, this is all much easier said than done. But viewing each crisis as an opportunity is something the Stoics did well. Let’s promise to do the same with this pandemic.
Stay home and reconnect with your loved ones. Start a new hobby. Go back to an old hobby. Cook. Eat. Sleep. Read. Meditate. Watch movies. Play music. Code. Draw. Make the most of each moment. That moment is all you have.
On a final note, it’s worth stating that just like everyone else, I have the same fears and anxieties around today’s world. Like you, I’m a work-in-progress.
Diving deeper into Stoicism in the last year has been really helpful for me, in processing what happened with my grandmother and now in dealing with the pandemic — and I hope that by sharing it, I can help others.
Special acknowledgements to Ritu Parikh for the amazing encouragement and edits!
Want to learn more about Stoicism? Check these out.
Jeet is a Data Scientist at Shopify. Outside of work, he’s an aspiring cricket athlete and enjoys reading, exercising, and spending time with friends and family