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Coping with COVID-19: Look to the Stoics

The New World

A month ago, it seemed impossible that within weeks the entire U.S. economy would shut down in an effort to control a new virus. We were aware of past pandemics: Smallpox, the Spanish Flu, and the Black Plague – but they were remote historical events, and very few of us were worried that a virus could completely change our entire way of life. But now, people all over the world have come to that realization and are afraid. Routines have been destroyed, and we feel adrift. Many have lost employment, we worry about our loved ones, and home isolation can cause intense loneliness. In these fearful times, we can look to the Stoics for guidance.

Look to the Stoics

To combat the negative emotions many of us are feeling, we can look to the tenets of Stoicism, which serve as a guide for how to remain calm during times of adversity. In our personal injury law practice, we often use the term “stoic” to describe a client who does not acknowledge the extent of his or her suffering. The stoic client’s default response to “how are you feeling?” is “Fine.”

That is one example of the common usage of the word “stoic,” but Stoicism is a philosophical concept that goes much deeper than not complaining. The ancient Stoics welcomed difficult times, such as that which the world is now experiencing, because it is during periods of extreme challenges that courage, resilience, and character are tested.  “Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests,” according to Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher. The greater the challenge that was overcome, the greater the glory.

Stoicism in the Time of Pandemic

One of the most famous Stoics, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, endured a pandemic in his lifetime. The Antonin Plague, which was similar to smallpox or measles, decimated a third of the population from 165 to 180 A.D.  Aurelius’ thoughts were compiled into a book entitled “Meditations” which embodies the Stoic philosophy that “the best antidote to outer turmoil is inner peace.”  While it is easy in uncertain and frightening times to spiral into anxiety, the Stoics believed that our minds create our own earthly versions of heaven or hell. 

Stoics emphasized the rational mind and making decisions based on information.  A Stoic would first fully contemplate a situation instead of acting without thinking from a place of panic. Marcus Aurelius kept a nightly diary. His thoughts centered around his belief that “the universe is change” and that our life is “what our thoughts make of it.” 

In trying to capture that philosophy during this time, we can ignore media that sensationalizes in order to draw clicks, and instead seek information through reliable sources that report facts, such as Worldometers.com, and Centers for Disease Control. Limit the time you absorb virus-related data – the numbers change daily, and new treatments are regularly being tested. A short amount of time dedicated to fact-seeking each morning and again each evening should be sufficient to keep you aware.

Stoicism and Loneliness

Loneliness, anxiety, and boredom are all emotions that can easily set in as we self-quarantine.  We miss our family, friends, and social lives. We may fall into a depression, especially the extroverts among us. We feel stressed and uncertain as we do not know when our lives will return to normal.

Lucius Seneca, known simply as Seneca, was a major philosophical figure during the Roman Imperial Period.  He was exiled at the height of his popularity for eight years by Roman Emperor Claudius. During this time of exile, Seneca did not fall into bitterness, but instead enjoyed the natural world, and used his deprivation to realize how unnecessary many material things are and contemplate that in good times one may fall into the traps of a soft and decadent lifestyle. He is responsible for a quote that may help us during these isolated times: 

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” 

Ethical Action in the Time of Pandemic

The Stoics believed that humans were social animals with a duty to support one another.  Aurelius wrote that he was devoted to the idea that he should “do good to [his] fellow creatures.”

Stoics placed significant importance on character. In anxious times, one can do more damage to oneself than any injury or plague can through acts that reveal bad character. Material goods come and go, but your character can never be taken from you. Good character should be nurtured consistently in easy times so that it reveals itself, often heroically, during hard times.

There are so many examples of humans displaying good character during this pandemic. Doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals risk their own health daily to care for the sick. Grocery store employees are keeping citizens fed despite their increased risk of exposure to the virus. Neighbors everywhere are reaching out to help each other.  Something as simple as buying only what you need to leave goods for others reveals good character. So does abiding by the recommended periods of self-quarantine, not just for one’s own self-preservation, but because it helps the most vulnerable, and saves the resources of health care workers.  

In this Together

Ancient Stoics knew that humans are social animals. We find meaning in community. As we have watched Covid-19 spread across the globe, we feel connected to others that are suffering in distant countries.  Areas that have passed their peak of the virus are reaching out to help those in other countries as they face an increase in cases.  

As Italy’s Covid-19 cases were rising, Xiami, a Chinese electronic corporation, donated thousands of face masks to the Italian government to help stop the virus’ spread. The shipping crates that contained the masks were stamped with a quote from Seneca: 

“We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.” 

Watch the YouTube video. How to Worry Less in Hard Times. The video below examines how the Stoics would respond to frightening situations.

Sacramento Personal Injury Lawyer 

I’m Ed Smith, a personal injury attorney in Sacramento. Do not hesitate to contact me for free and friendly advice if you suffered injuries as the result of another driver’s negligence. I can be reached toll-free at (800) 404-5400 or if you are calling within the Sacramento metropolitan area at (916) 921-6400.

Photo Attribution: Megan McGuire

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