You Don’t Control What Happens, You Control How You Respond
The most important practice in Stoic philosophy can guide us through the age of coronavirus
The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. In stressful times, I like to reread this passage from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus on just how to do that:
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…
What better opportunity to practice this “chief task in life” than during the global pandemic we’re currently facing? Covid-19 is here. No amount of yelling at the TV will make it go away. Cursing the origin of the virus, being racist, perpetuating conspiracy theories, and hoarding toilet paper will not save you. Neither will sticking your head in the sand and pretending it’s “not that bad.” All these things do is waste the time and energy you could be using to sustain yourself and others.
We can’t control the existence of coronavirus, but we can control how we respond. The goal now is to flatten the curve. To prevent the unnecessary spreading of the virus. To prevent unnecessary overloading of medical professionals, emergency services, and other critical infrastructure. No one individual can accomplish this by themselves, but each of us acting rightly, collectively, can make a big difference. As the Greek philosopher, Zeno, famously said, “Well-being is realized in small steps, but it is no small thing.”
We realize this well-being and fight this virus by the choices we make right now. Here are some things you can do:
- Practice social distancing. As much as possible, stay away from people outside of your family. See if you can work from home, and if you have employees, do what you can so they can do the same. Implement common-sense measures so that your employees and customers are safe: reducing face-to-face interactions as much as possible, granting generous sick leave, and limiting the number of customers at a single time.
- Cancel or postpone any events that you have on your calendar. Make them remote-access, if possible. Do not prioritize your convenience or entertainment at the risk of spreading the virus.
- Practice safety measures. Wash your hands as much as possible, especially before you eat. Don’t touch your face, and cough into a tissue or your elbow. Don’t shake hands with people. Press buttons with your knuckles or elbows (and then wash them afterward). Avoid food that hasn’t been cooked.
- Help others in more vulnerable situations. If you know your elderly neighbor is planning to make a grocery run, see if you can help them get what they need so they don’t have to leave their house. (Think of the wonderful generosity of this Chinese company that sent face masks to Italy.)
- Hold off on visiting elderly friends or family members. Yes, you’re worried about them. Yes, you miss them. But you put them, their community, and yourself at risk by stopping by their senior home or visiting their house. Even if you and the person you’re visiting seem to be in good health, the safest option is to wait to see them.
- Don’t hoard. Hoarding essential goods hurts members of your community who lack resources to prepare. When you stock up on nonperishable foods and goods, leave enough on the shelf for others to do the same.
- Don’t tie up medical resources you don’t need. Save masks for doctors, nurses, first responders, and others who need them for their jobs. And don’t forget that for now, our testing supply is sorely limited; do your best not to tie up the critical resource of Covid-19 tests, and avoid being a hypochondriac.
- Use your time wisely. You can’t control how long you’ll need to engage in social distancing, but you can control how you spend that time. Try a new hobby, or hone a skill, or read up on something that interests you. Do that thing you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t had time for. The version of you that steps out of quarantine at some future date can be better than the version that entered it, if you try.
- Batch your online orders to reduce the need for inefficient shipments and minimize stress on already stressed supply chains.
- Don’t spread misinformation about the virus. Instead, make sure others know how to best handle the spread of the virus.
- If you get sick, isolate yourself at home as long as symptoms remain moderate. If you have trouble breathing, are an older adult (over 70), have pre-existing lung conditions, or are immunocompromised, be ready to call your doctor or visit an ER. If you believe you may have been exposed to Covid-19, stay in your home for two weeks to keep others safe.
- Remember that panic doesn’t help. Rushing to sell your stocks, ignoring the needs of others, freaking out, and being cross with or cruel to others are all ways to make a bad situation worse.
- Cherish the people you love and the present moment, as scary as things are. They’re all we can count on right now.
Studying Stoicism helps in moments like these. It can remind us to practice stillness in the face of chaos. To put aside irrational thoughts and develop a plan to keep us moving forward. To be able to spread the only positive form of contagion there is: calm.