Nothing focuses the mind better than a pandemic.
The novel coronavirus landed in my California county in late January, and the second person to die from Covid-19 in my state passed away in a hospital just a couple miles from my home. The illness is now spreading in my community. Events are cancelled; my husband and I were told to work from home. It’s just a matter of time until our kids are told to stay away from school and continue their studies on their own.
It’s a taste of the experience that ancient people felt regularly—life threatened by a menace outside their control, whether it's disease, starvation, war, or other violence. Life does not feel secure, dashing the illusion we hold onto most days that it is.
We can hope for the best, but considering how easy it seems to be to become infected, we know we’re at the mercy of outside factors. And we can’t change our age, or our pre-existing conditions, the people we encounter, or the area in which we live. All these things can cause vulnerability, as can random chance.
This all serves as a potent reminder of the conditions that prompted the rise of Greek and Roman philosophy, especially Stoicism. This philosophy teaches that many things that happen in the world are outside our control, and what's most important is the way we respond to them.
There ARE certain actions that are in our control, of course. We can practice “social distancing,” and follow the recommendations of our local health department (which caused a cascade of event cancellations last week, and the mandate to work remotely) and CDC. We can wear gloves if needed, wash our hands often, use sanitizers, clean shared surfaces, try to stop touching our own faces. We can stock our pantries (and help others do the same by donating to local food banks).
But what about working to strengthen ourselves both inside and out? To build our toughness and resistance has much as possible?
For inner strength, the Stoics are an excellent guide. First, examine those impressions. When a newscaster or social media post makes you start to panic, think twice. What's a reasonable course of action? Taking precautions with hygiene and stocking up on prescription meds and food basics = great; buying every last can of beans and toilette paper roll in the store = going overboard.
Next, think of a key virtue: courage. A sense of bravery is not an old-fashioned luxury. It is something many of need to conjure everyday. And this pandemic is bringing it home to all of us.
Now, more than ever, is a good time to share that bravery with our children. After they do the common-sense things of practicing clean hands and germ avoidance, their goal—like ours—is to live well within the confines of dangers and uncertainty. Perhaps this is a great opportunity to model how we can still life our lives surrounded by fear. A minor triumph was a trip out shopping a couple days ago with my whole family, visiting the near-empty farmer’s market, the busy food store, and the less-busy-than-usual small shops.
Another key Stoic approach is standing up to our fear. Building our character. Stoicism at its core promotes a sense of self-mastery. That’s the crux of Marcus Aurelius’ project in his Meditations: to remind himself how to manage his impressions and responses, to keep the big picture in mind, and to recall what truly has value—good moral intentions and the actions that result from them.
Fear of dying is primal in humans, and as a survival mechanism, it prompts us to work hard to protect ourselves from dangers. The message of the Stoics is quite foreign to our modern ears, accustomed to trying to prolong life as long as we can with tools and technologies. But we find that sometimes, we aren't in control of how things go.
For a 'shot in the arm' filled with truth, let’s listen to Epictetus: “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” Epictetus faced death with courage and a sense of control over his emotional response. Epictetus again: “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”
These concepts are more easily digested as one gets older; for my kids, I try to explain that dying is a part of living, a critical step in the 'circle of life' of all creatures. That doesn't help cure young ones' fears by any means, but I think it is better than sweeping the idea of death under the rug completely. It's what we do with our time that matters, and I'd rather not spend each moment quaking in fear and sadness. That, too, they can understand. And heck, now that they're being forced to stay home from school for a few weeks, maybe they'll have more time to learn about philosophy (LOL!).
For physical strengthening in this trying time, we can strive to make healthy choices every day. I am not a doctor, but lots of healthy living advice that I've read is pretty much common sense. Science shows that good habits can help us be more resilient to disease. Resilient people may get an infection, but they can over come it. Of course, hygiene is critical; we’ve been told so often to wash our hands. I’m a germaphobe and that’s not new to me, nor to my kids, who hear that refrain constantly... And who have been getting doused with Purell regularly since their toddler days!
Also: Try to get a good night’s rest. This is obvious, but it's also really, really important, for kids and grown-ups alike. With all our 24/7 entertainment, our busy work lives, and all our childcare and housekeeping responsibilities, this can be hard for many adults. But now more than ever let’s make it a priority.
In addition, doctors remind us to reduce sugar and processed foods (though I think just a little stress-eating of Girl Scout cookies, especially after reading about coronavirus, shouldn’t cause too much guilt!). Consuming veggies, fruits, and lean proteins is always good, and other things in moderation. Easing children's love for sweets isn't easy, but reminding them "that's a dessert food" seems to help confine sugary foods to fewer instances.
Exercise helps, around 30 minutes a day or more; if weather permits, head outside for a burst of fresh air and movement. Maybe even consider meditating. Even if it’s just 10 minutes of deep breathing, it helps soothe the mind and body and bring us back to what’s important, rather than a frantic ratcheting-up of fear. I like to sit on a cushion, turn on some gentle sounds (rain, waves, Tibetan bowls!) and breathe slowly, clearing my mind of aggravating or stressful thoughts.
And finally: We can accept that our lives are forever in danger, and that we are ultimately mortal beings, while also striving to live a values-driven life RIGHT NOW. Life is not meaningless because it’s unpredictable and finite—we can MAKE it meaningful.
This was a lesson I learned from reading existentialist Albert Camus many years ago, and I’ve also found that this concept motivated many Stoics to make themselves and their existence better. That including Marcus Aurelius, who wrote: ”Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.”
“If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage... turn to it with all your heart... but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue, give no room to anything else.”
- Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations
The oddest thing happened when I first met Dominique. She is an experienced instructor in the Alexander Technique—a healthy way of using the body that I had come to her to learn. As she began giving me directions about my movements, she noticed I kept saying “I will try.”
Dominique asked me to “stop trying.”
Simply trying, she pointed out, wouldn’t enable me to accomplish my goals of learning better body use and gaining a stronger, more flexible spinal column. It wouldn't help me stand, walk, or run. It wouldn't energize my movements.
All my life I have said this. “I will try” has kept me going when I had lots of doubts. For that, I'm thankful.
But it’s also a crutch, a protective mechanism, in a way. The word “try” is closely allied with “I might fail.” It implies, “perhaps I can’t do this.” It evinces anxiety. And it also suggests that a ton of effort will be needed to force myself to do what’s hard.
These thoughts have gotten me in trouble many times as I scolded myself for being a failure, not living up to my imagined potential, not being the person I dreamed about becoming.
In the Alexander Technique, we learn to direct our bodies to use involuntary muscles, focusing our thoughts on a few key intentions: freeing the neck, keeping the head forward and up, lengthening and widening the back, separating shoulders from each other.
Rather than “trying” to force my body into “good posture” or a straightened, upright position, this technique encourages me to imagine how my body could be if it were always ready to jump, like a spring. It enables me to break old habits of movement and posture, habits of slumping through life. Instead, I am focused on awareness of simple core principles. It's led to a revitalized use of my body.
One of the biggest challenges in re-thinking movement is what F.M. Alexander, the technique's founder, called "end-gaining." That's where we work to obtain a goal no matter the means, losing sight of all else. This attitude results in abuse of our bodies. Just one example: hunched over our computers or phones, we're constantly bending our bodies to our tools rather than using them in the way nature intended. Then we experience spinal compression, muscle overextension, and pain.
"The difficulty for all of us is to take up a new way of life in which we must apply principles, instead of the haphazard end-gaining methods of the past," Alexander said.
I believe this kind of change is possible for our souls—our ruling centers, in the Stoic sense—too.
It is not easy. For years, I “tried” to improve myself. While this project encompassed many activities, from the artistic to the educational to the psychological, much of my effort and "trying" focused on writing. I knew I had skills, but I struggled to put them to use, to reach people, to fulfill my idea of what my writing “should” be if I just tried hard enough.
Each time I attempted to force my pen to write simply in order to succeed in showcasing my talents and gaining recognition, it fell flat. I wasn’t happy with the results. And I got frustrated. My writing didn't seem to touch anyone. Why wasn’t all my trying working?
I became subtly angry at my shortcomings, and at the world for failing to fulfill my ambitions. And as I did so, I got further and further from understanding and protecting my ruling center... and I distanced myself from my true strengths. I was doing everything for the sake of an audience that was either absent or just didn’t care.
It was when I reached inside to find what truly mattered to me that my work became meaningful to me. And that, too, is when readers started to tell me that they had learned something, or that they had achieved an insight into their own struggles after reading something I shared.
There's a lot to learn here, though it's not so easy to see in our competition-driven culture. We have become accustomed to trying to dazzle others with our achievements and talents.
Both Stoic philosophy and the Alexander Technique encourage those who practice them to adopt simple core principles, from which all else flows. These basic ideas resonate universally.
In my current Stoic practice, I have been turning back to the key virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance. Those are the basic ideals to live by, the crux of the work of Stoicism. For me, it is a lifelong process to live a good life (and I think ancient philosophers would agree). There is no Stoic sage nearby to show me the path; I am feeling my way forward as best I can.
Every day I ask myself, how can I be wise, honest, just, brave, and self-controlled? I fail often. But I gradually through these principles I’ve begun to develop better habits of the mind and to alter my own behaviors and habits too.
This happens in ways large and small. I ask myself, how can I exercise self-control today? Is it by simply not checking online news headlines all afternoon, or skipping that tempting slice of cake? It is by refraining from pitying myself when something goes wrong? When it comes to wisdom, have I questioned my thoughts (and fears) about that email exchange that bothered me at work, rather than falling into paranoia? Have I been brave about providing honest feedback to colleagues and management, even when it's easier to stay silent? Have I been fair to my children and have I been open to their honest thoughts? How can I temper my high expectations of them, letting them find their own path forward while still offering good guidance and support?
It is an ongoing struggle - but not one that I’ll win by just trying.
So, after years of doubtful trying, I know that I can indeed change... gradually. Everyone can. It starts with a willingness to adjust your intentions, question your thoughts, and evolve your habits.
It's the kind of work that I'm glad to undertake for a lifetime.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.