Take it like a Stoic: coping in the time of coronavirus

By Nahlah Ayed

In the continuing debate over whether to mask or not to mask in the time of coronavirus, one significant factor beyond the scientific arguments is often overlooked: the need for control. 

At a time when billions of people — half the world’s population now — are involuntarily under lockdown to ward off an unseen viral enemy, wearing a mask isn’t only a health decision. For many, it is also a way of gaining some control in a situation when there is virtually none.

Dealing with the question of control, say modern Stoics, is key to coping well with the constraints of pandemic living. It is why they believe the ancient practices of Stoicism are newly relevant in this modern-day crisis. 

Central to Stoicism — a philosophical school of thought dating back to another period of turmoil in the third century B.C. — is recognizing what one can change, and what is beyond one’s control. 

Seeking resilience

Stoicism was born following the death of Alexander the Great, at a time “when people were facing major changes in the political and social landscape and had no control over anything,” says Massimo Pigliucci, author and professor of philosophy City College of New York, and a practicing Stoic who hosts Stoic Meditations podcast.

That is typically the time where philosophies of life and religions that emphasize resilience, tend to flourish, he added.

An employee at the COVID-19 screening clinic at the old Hôtel-Dieu Hospital puts on protective equipment. There’s a looming shortage of personal protective equipment in Quebec, where as of Friday, 61 people have died and 6,101 have tested positive for COVID-19. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

“Let’s not forget that even when we get out of this [pandemic], we are still facing the possibility of climate collapse at a global scale… not to mention the ever-lurking possibility of nuclear annihilation. So you know, we do have problems.” 

But, he told CBC Radio’s Ideas, “you don’t really need a catastrophe in order to use Stoicism. It actually prepares you for the notion that in life you will encounter challenges and that you will be doing better in those challenges if you are, in fact, prepared.”

Even before the pandemic, the words of stoics like Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus and Zeno, gained popularity among those seeking resilience, taking on Stoic exercises from practising poverty, to regularly contemplating our mortality. 

Pandemic lessons

In these times though, when illness and isolation are baring the frailty of human bodies and testing the composure of human minds, the words and experiences of ancient Stoics appear to hold lessons directly relevant to our lives under pandemic.

The early Stoics knew all about crisis: They lived through wars, exile and yes, episodes of infectious disease, as well as the loss of loved ones.

And yet Seneca, who was exiled not once, but twice, wrote this while isolated against his will: “I am joyous and cheerful, as if under the best of circumstances. And indeed, now they are the best, since my spirit, devoid of all other preoccupations, has room for its own activities, and either delights in easier studies or rises up eager for the truth, to the consideration of its own nature as well as that of the universe.”

“He used that time to contemplate nature and to contemplate his philosophy,” said Brigid Delaney, an Australian journalist and author who is writing a book about Stoicism. 

“Stoics did experience these long periods away from their loved ones and away from their job. They lost all their money when they were exiled. They didn’t have their social standing. And that’s going to happen to a lot of us now. So it’s how we use that time — when we’re in our own exile at home — that is really important.

“We can’t change the fact that we’ve been ordered into isolation, and that we don’t have control over that,” she added. “We just have to suck it up.” 

‘Not the only one suffering’

Also relevant, both Pigliucci and Delaney say, is the time-worn Stoic practice of keeping a diary — as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius did, an expansive note to self that was later published under the title “Meditations.”

During his reign, Aurelius presided over an empire wracked by the plague — and he still wrote, often using what Pigliucci described as the “view from above” meditation.

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius once wrote: ‘The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.’ (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Where you remind yourself that whatever is happening now, first of all, it has probably happened before. You’re not the only one suffering from this particular problem. And other people have coped with it. 

“And so there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to cope with it.” 

It’s a view he says that can be especially helpful today.

Stoic thinking

In the ongoing search for answers on how to cope in these unusual times, Pigliucci says the Stoic focus on rational informed thinking, on cosmopolitanism and helping others, and on the inevitability of death is also useful.

He adds that despite the narrow, modern-day understanding of “stoic,” cultivating joy is also part of Stoic thinking. 

For Pigliucci in these times, that means having a “virtual aperitivo” with friends over videoconferencing, then watching a movie that they later discuss over a nightcap.
Among other advice: 

  • Becoming well informed about the pandemic and coronavirus and understanding the risks and recommended practices
  • Negative visualization – imagining loss and calamity but then taking comfort in the fact that it hasn’t happened
  • Keeping a diary
  • Helping others

On that latter point, says Pigliucci: “The best human being you can be is a human being who uses reason to help others, to help society. And as a bonus, Seneca says you would also feel good about it because practising virtue actually makes you feel good.”

*  This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed and Philip Coulter.

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