In a world where unpredictability has manifested itself as a global epidemic, what can we do to keep our inner well-being at bay?
For the modern American, it seems as if the Coronavirus situation keeps on piling up and up, worlds away from resolving itself, worlds away from returning back to normal life. Faced with the gravity of the situation, it’s easy for us to resort to pessimism, even nihilism, surrounding ourselves with worst-case scenarios and pity for ourselves and others. Yet, the question begs to ask itself — should we really continue on thinking this way?
Human nature and its path of existence are hardwired into a line of dichotomy: to navigate through life with the innate desire for control, safety, and certainty, all while being bound by a fragile body, an unpredictable world, and an ever-changing, indifferent universe. We’re naturally inclined to fear for our own survival, and along with this predisposition there is no shortage of the reasons for us to worry, even when we’re now granted the fortunes of safety, shelter, health, and money. Humanity has long been entangled by this paradox.
But over-worrying can bring about problems more disadvantageous than not worrying at all. We are all stuck in this situation, stuck amidst forces that seem so far out of reach. Cementing ourselves to feelings of uneasiness not only inhibits happiness, but also misleads us when it comes to pinpointing which parts of life we’re able to manipulate and which we have no power over.
Our tendency to constantly worry is best brought out by this new normal we now live — the COVID pandemic. Drowning ourselves with a barrage of case number updates and shifting mortality rates, it’s quite easy to start worrying about every little thing in fear of endangering not only our mortal fragility but also our established sense of comfort and control.
We mustn’t be so disheartened, however. In the past, many individuals have been thrown into life-altering trials and tribulations. Yet they emerged from the other side as not discouraged but even wiser and more headstrong than before. Without any past experience of facing this large-scale of an emergency, if we’re to endure and endeavor through it then we must examine pieces of our past where historical figures, people just like us, have been thrown into events of the same level of magnitude and emerged triumphantly. We can examine the philosophies, behaviors, and modes of thinking they employed which carried them through every ordeal.
One branch of philosophy often found within the temperaments of successful historical figures is Stoicism. Why stoicism? More importantly, what is stoicism?
Brought about by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a series of practiced tenets written during his Roman wars for empire, stoicism is a type of ontology focused on adopting a mental fortitude amidst moments of conflict and chaos. It’s applicable to both the most extreme of hardships (like this pandemic) and the most minute of personal dilemmas.
The key principle in Stoicism is understanding that the only thing in life we can have control over is our internal domain: our personal choices, attitudes, and judgments.
Stoics believe that we should maintain the following balance: on one side, an awareness that the things we’re concerned about likely could happen; that life will have its moments of miscalculations and misfortunes, and that we should prepare ourselves for these times, both mentally and sensibly. On the other side of the scale is recognizing that these catastrophic situations cannot be predicted or controlled. Yes, there is benefit in rational preparation for the future — but that benefit loses its place when one worries about what they do not know of the future.
Not only that, but we tend to assume the worst. We assume that if circumstances were to digress from its intended (our expected) path, life would be broken beyond repair. But how often is this true?
Take this COVID situation for example — yes, most of us are terribly preoccupied with the fear of becoming infected, yet in truth our lives wouldn’t be too terribly affected had we gotten infected. In the back of our minds, inconspicuously we think that it is something we actually do have control over. If we’d been infected, we’re told simply to stay at home and take some over-the-counter medicine, and our symptoms should lessen. Yet, even when given this reassurance (by approved doctors); even given that we’re generally within arms reach of the proper remedies, the majority of us continue to be worked up.
But there is no reason for us to feel that way. Right now, there are many out there living some version of a seemingly “worst-case scenario,” deprived of the luxuries of technology and commercial supermarkets, likely uninformed of the happenings of the world. Yet he or she is likely just as happy or unhappy as us. We have the convenience of obtaining any information about the virus: methods of avoiding the spread, solutions to alleviate symptoms, etc. In general, we can logically conclude that worrying about what hasn’t happened or what we can’t do anything about only unnecessarily adds to our suffering. The accessibility of copious medical information and remedies keeps us up-to-date about and safe from the virus, and for that, we should be thankful.
So a calm mind isn’t achieved by trying to alter and control our surroundings, but the way we think. For developing healthy approaches to thinking, we can turn to the slave philosopher Epictetus. Epictetus’s stoic principles serve as a set of pointers that, applied to this certain context, can bring some peace of mind.
Epictetus’ first principle states that illness may be a hindrance to the body, but not to our ability to choose, and certainly not to the prestige of our knowledge and cognition. When it comes to our personal will and our internal domain of control, we still have the final verdict in whether we should panic or make rational choices in a more logical fashion.
When we examine how people have responded to the pandemic, therein lies two extremes: on one end, there’s irrational panic. On the other, there’s complete indifference. In the first case, there’s panic buying and mass hysteria, shutting yourself off completely from any form of human interaction, isolating yourself with articles upon articles about fluctuating death rates, symptoms, and political agendas. In the second case, people refuse to see the problem in an effort to seem tough.
But in order to act in accord with human nature, one must resist the temptation of falling onto either end; rather, it starts by acquiescing the situation, doing just enough appropriate research, and de-dramatizing the events as much as necessary. Remember, your body can be sick, but your mind is not affected.
The second principle is to watch your judgment. Be cognizant of where your unease stems from. Anxiety isn’t caused by factors of the environment — it’s caused by the attitude we have towards the environment. Epictetus said, ‘Distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person, because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.”’ This is important when we face events of universal nature, like this pandemic, which we should approach with equanimity rather than abhorrence.
Focus less on things outside of your control. What is within our control is of our own faculty; this is the central part of life which we should direct our focus and our efforts towards. This doesn’t mean closing ourselves off completely from the events going on outside — rather, we should develop an intuitive indifference towards outside events so that they won’t distract us from our priorities.
Epictetus’s third principle is to use the power of reason. Luckily for us, COVID19 has occurred in an age of ceaselessly growing information, especially in a time of global democracy where information is no longer kept covert. This allows us to do things like trace and limit the spread of the disease. At the same time, however, the internet can quickly become a hotbed for misinformation and deception. Digging deeper into the black hole of sources when we are not cognizant of each source’s reliability, we hinder our ability to think clearly, and consequently jump to false conclusions. That is why we must always be skeptical.
Ultimately, what does it mean for us to reduce our pandemic anxiety? Do everything that is under your control to not become sick, and then willingly face reality if you do. Specifically, that means following the putative quarantine process of washing your hands, wearing a mask in public, social distancing yourself, etc. Follow government-mandated orders. Readily sacrifice the small comforts of complete freedom, temporarily, and be okay with that. Learn to let go.