Times are tough in the sixth month of the pandemic. Gut-wrenching losses have set in: Friends and acquaintances have experienced the loss of loved ones from Covid-19; others are being laid off from jobs due to the economic impact of the virus. My children are bracing for months of online school and a continued lack of close contact with teachers and peers, as well as the disappearance of many school-based activities (sports, arts) that made their schooldays more palatable. On top of that, the fight for equal justice carries on in our communities in the US. And here in Northern California, enormous forest fires sparked by lightning have consumed towns and hillsides, and the smoke has made local air unhealthy to breath.
It is difficult, at times, to feel optimism. But carry on we must. As a friend recently pointed out, “If my grandmother could survive a genocide in Europe, I can survive this.”
True. Things could be worse. And for many of us, a refresher course in basic Stoic principles for self-improvement could help us bear up through this. Who knows, maybe we’ll even make a little personal progress in handling adversity in this awful time?
Lessons from Epictetus: How to Make Progress
This brings us to Epictetus. In Discourses III.2, he explores “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Let’s take a moment to dig into this text, and to see if it can help us gain perspective on our current situation.
Epictetus discusses “three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained.” Those three are the study of:
Epictetus says that most philosophers have focused on the third element, while neglecting the first two. So it’s to the first two that we must bring our attention. Let’s begin:
Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason. (III.2.3)
Starting with how to handle negative emotions: During this pandemic, we are constantly assaulted by our passions and our “desires and aversions.”
Social Humans Face an Inner Conflict
As we live in quarantines and lockdowns, we face a difficult inner conflict. Throughout human history, as Stoics and other ancient philosophers acknowledged, we have been a social species. Humans have banded together since prehistoric times to fend off threats. Humans have thrived on contact with each other, and on the essential social supports that parents and grandparents provide children, teachers provide students, friends provide peers, employers provide staff, generals provide soldiers. Cutting off our human contact—or turning it completely “virtual” on artificial screens—will inevitably have an impact on our inner life.
Put another way: We humans have a strong (and very natural) desire to congregate with our families and friends; we have a longing to go out and enjoy the restaurants, theaters, concerts, gyms, sports, and salons we know and love from the past; we enjoy travel, experiencing new things, and celebrating personal milestones out in the world with our peers and colleagues.
Here’s where the conflict comes in. On the aversion side, we wish to avoid disease and our loved ones falling ill. Clearly, we want to stay away from people and places that may spread infection. So our wish to be together and to support one another in our many roles clashes with the new imperative to “social distance.”
Let’s also acknowledge that many people have no choice but to live in this conflicted space: they need to avoid losing their livelihood in an essential or service job, and to do so, they have to expose themselves to situations that may harbor the virus. Or they are parents whose school is opening up: they want their children to learn, and to do so may require a risk of exposure.
All of these wishes create a huge battle in our minds, one that often overwhelms people and drives them to self-destructive behaviors. For instance, huge house parties have popped up in the Hamptons and in Los Angeles, despite the warnings of doctors and scientists that this can spread disease. And some people are making a political issue out of the imperative to protect ourselves and others, refusing to do one of the few things that could prevent the spread of Covid: wear masks in public.
Stoicism reminds us of the essential moral duty to master our passions. Rather than be led by our knee-jerk impulses or our stubborn desires, we have an obligation to look at the bigger picture and draw upon our sense of reason to develop a clear idea of the best path forward. We have to work to question each impression and each decision, to ensure that we have seen the whole truth of the matter. This takes both energy and discipline—both of which are in short supply in a suffering world.
It’s not straightforward, either. It’s about weighing risk, too, and unfortunately we still don’t know how much risk is involved in many activities today. For example, a local summer camp asked my daughter to attend in person, having gained permission for smaller groups to participate, with counselors wearing masks. Ultimately, we decided there would be an unknown amount of risk, and since we had little control over how the health policies would be enforced at the camp, we decided to keep our daughter home. Extra YouTube and Netflix time over the summer seemed a small price to pay for more certainty. On the other hand, my daughters have both been allowed to visit friends at the park, or on bike rides, in a socially-distant setting, where they have some control of the situation.
But the length of time of our pandemic restrictions is wearing on all of us. I’ve noticed that this is a time when many of us feel we are losing the motivation to do the kinds of things (get exercise, eat right, work hard in remote situations) that could benefit us in the long run. There’s a kind of fatigue that sets in dealing with the isolation, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, financial hardships, and, in some cases, medical issues, of the pandemic.
What Could Help Most: Preserving Our Relationships
So we can already see how difficult this situation is for our rational brains, and we need to think about our desires and aversions in a new light during a pandemic. Now moving on to the second “study” of Epictetus, I’ll quote him here:
The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. (III.2.4)
This passage makes clear that we need not become the kind of Stoic that Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock” represents—distant, unemotional, and stony. We are not statues, nor are we robots. I admire the way Epictetus weaves in personal relationships here, because I believe that’s what could help us the most during this difficult time.
Most of us have a relationship with someone: A parent, spouse or partner, child, close friend. Or perhaps you have a relationship with a spiritual element or God. Or with a country, company, university, or other institution. Do you feel interconnected with that relationship? If so, could you spend a few moments considering how your behaviors during this pandemic affect those relationships?
For instance, let's consider a set of actions during the pandemic: Not being consistent with mask wearing and practicing hygiene and social distancing. This action can affect not just you, but also the people in your relationships: you child, your husband or wife, and especially your elderly relative. And it can hurt your whole community—and ultimately your country.
The US has experienced a massive upswing in Covid cases, so our behavior as Americans matters deeply. There’s a not we are not getting right on behalf of our families and communities, according to the statistics.
For ancient Stoics, friendship was considered an inherently good thing (it may not be necessary for being a good person, but nevertheless it was seen as something we should all pursue—see Seneca on Stoic friendship). Honoring our relationships with our friends and companions is critical to our sense of virtue. And a core belief in our common humanity—the interrelatedness of all humans—is central to Stoic thinking. They can also help us remember why we’re living a life of purpose to begin with: To be that role model and that pillar of strength that our friends and families can lean on.
And now, despite our more typical ways of celebrating our fellow humans as social creatures, we must actually distance ourselves from each other as a way of helping one another through a disease-ridden world—a way of protecting each other.
Achieving Constancy: A Worthy Goal
As we move forward through this pandemic and however many months it lasts, we will do well to keep these Stoic values at the forefronts of our minds. Recalling and rehearsing how to make progress as a person will lead us to the consistency that Epictetus spells out in his third point:
“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)
We may indeed find ourselves depressed (or even drunk, as per Epictetus…and the recently rising statistics on alcohol sales in the US!) during this lengthy pandemic. Many of us wish we could sleep through it, and wake up in a better place. It is tough to deal with the chaos in our brains as we try to survive personal and societal crisis.
But maintaining our moral vigilance and cultivating good decision-making in a consistent way should be our goal, along with the sustaining our rational mind, as the Stoics promoted. Our inner geniuses may feel confused by a lack of information and uncertainty, but if we keep ourselves informed as best we can, and engaged in the support of our communities and relationships in a distant way—online, by phone, and text—we can hope these sparks of reason within us will serve us well.
As we examine our impressions Stoic-style, the twin weights of scientific facts and the needs of our common humanity should be our guides, despite the conflicts we face today. I won’t say I’m capable of that each day, each hour, as we are confronted with new challenges and difficult news on a personal, national, and international level. But it is a worthy aim.
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.