Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in proper Stoic fashion

 

 

            Around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned people’s lives upside down.  Activities that they used to take for granted are no longer possible.  This might include going to their favorite gym, theater, or restaurant.  More significantly, it might include visits to elderly relatives.

            Because of the pandemic, people have lost their jobs or a significant portion of their retirement portfolio.  Others have lost their freedom: imagine the irony of being quarantined on the luxury cruise ship that was supposed to have been the site of your dream vacation.  And tragically, yet others have lost their lives. 

            To deal with the challenges presented by the coronavirus, we would do well to consult the works of the ancient Stoics.  They didn’t advocate, as some seem to think, that we simply stand there and grimly take whatever life throws at us.  They instead thought we could prepare for life’s setbacks by performing various mental exercises.

            One was to engage in negative visualization: periodically during the day, they said, we should spend a few moments imagining that we had lost something we value: maybe our job, our health, or our spouse.  We shouldn’t dwell on the possibility of such losses; that would be a recipe for a miserable existence.  We should instead allow ourselves to have a flickering thought about them.  One consequence of doing this is that we stop taking our job, our health, or our spouse for granted.  In fact, we might find ourselves appreciating them to an unprecedented degree.

            From a Stoic point of view, the pandemic has a silver lining: by showing us what it is like to lose the things we take for granted, it can transform us from jaded individuals into people who realize just how wonderful their “everyday life” used to be—and continues to be, despite recent setbacks.   By subsequently engaging in negative visualization, we can maintain this transformation.

            The pandemic also forces people to do something that, according to the Stoics, they should have been doing all along, namely, engage in the last-time meditation.  As we go about our daily business, the Stoics said, we should occasionally pause to consider that whatever we are doing, there will be a last time we do it—and that this might be the last time for the activity in question.  Doing this can make us savor our daily activities rather than plowing through them in a distracted state of mind.

            Thanks to the pandemic, you have likely considered the possibility that the last time you visited your favorite restaurant will turn out to be the last time you ever visit it.  (Although you are confident that authorities will someday reopen restaurants, there is a chance that yours won’t still be in business.)  You might also have considered the possibility that the last time you saw an elderly relative before the pandemic broke out will turn out to be the last time you ever see her.  As a result, if the time comes when you again visit your favorite restaurant or your elderly relative, it will likely be an emotion-filled event.  Not only that, but you will subsequently be much less likely to take visits to the restaurant and the relative for granted, the way you used to.

            In deciding how to respond to pandemic-related challenges, you should think of yourself as someone who is creating material for a future story, one you might someday tell your grandchildren.  Many people’s pandemic story will simply recount how unhappy they were and how inconvenient life was.  With a little effort on your part, though, and by approaching things with the right frame of mind, you will instead be able to tell a story—as true as the day is long—about how you calmly and cleverly rose to the challenges that confronted you.

            It may seem hard to believe, but there is a very good chance that you will someday look back on these times as being not a dark chapter in your life, but as being an important life experience, one in which you not only rose to the challenges that confronted you but learned some important lessons about how to make the most out of being alive.

            I will end by sharing some advice that gets to the heart of the Stoic philosophy on how to have a good life despite the setbacks we experience:  “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”

© 2020 William B. Irvine