A Stoic lesson of control during the Covid-19 pandemic
Since January 2020 we’ve been locked into a cycle of demoralization. We have hit a wall. The realization spreads that we aren’t in control. We don’t have a cure. No cure, no control, we are on our own against an invisible enemy. This has come about for a number of reasons. One of them is the oversell, the hype on new technology, innovations and cutting-edge research—all of them promised us that we were on our way to control the future. People got that memo. They believed it.
The future has arrived in the form of a coronavirus and despite all of our technological advances, we discover it hasn’t delivered the promised control. We are dazed from hitting that wall at high speed. We are in the early stages of a control reassessment period.
Everyone is asking themselves the same question: Can we control the Sars-Cov2 virus that is now controlling us?
The table has been switched. We are now on the defensive. People re-read that memo where we were promised that technology would keep us safe, young, healthy and cognitive alert. Instead of high technology, we are instructed to wash our hands, wear a mask, keep social distance from others. A medieval formula replaces the technological promise.
Strip away the veneer of modernity and we are asking the same question and using the same solutions as have been asked for millennia. We thought we’d come so far.
We are shocked as we sit in our lock downed rooms contemplating who we are, what become, and how we mistakenly thought we had decoupled from the past. Looking back on our pre-pandemic life, we are discovering that was an illusion. Our species has been through many pandemics. We will be through many more.
The point of the arts and science is that we can communicate ways of being in the world, that if accepted, will bring to a higher level of control over our decisions, behavior and relationship with others.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “A writer—and, I believe, generally all persons—must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist just feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
What the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us so far is—our we lack control to shape the clay of our reality. We realize that there are forces, events, and things which can easily kill us and we have no effective way to protect ourselves. The clay is shaped by the ultimate artist: Nature. The art that endures and matters emerges from nature; not from mankind, and once that sinks it, there is a deflation of ego. The air has gone out of the human inflated artistic balloon. We look at the flaccid remains of that balloon and ask ourselves as artist why we hadn’t seen it true transit nature.
I’ve been reflecting on the conversation between Dr. Peter Attia (10 April 2020) and Dr. Paul Conti. Conti is a psychiatrist. Attia is a longevity researcher. The subject was the psychological fallout from the pandemic, what it means, and how to cope with the fear, depression and anxiety. https://peterattiamd.com/paulconti2/
“The parts of our brain that want to make us safe go into overdrive and make us feel so much more vulnerable,” said Conti.
Attia frankly spoke about his increased irritability over the last month (listen to the segment from 25.30minutes). “I sat there thinking, I really don’t want to do this. If the quarantine ended tomorrow, I don’t feel like going anywhere. I don’t know what I want. But I don’t want this. I have a lack of interest in anything. If I could wave a magic wand and make the Coronavirus go ahead, I had no sense of joy.”
Attia asked Conti to help him understand his feeling of lack of interest in life. The feeling that comes with the old life receding in the rearview mirror but the new way of being can’t be identified. Attia explained his feeling as a mixture of sadness and irritability. Conti said a lot of people shared the same feeling. Many of his patients had sought to escape through drugs and alcohol.
What is the cause of this mental state? Conti characterized it as demoralization. Why are people like Attia, who has fame, comfort, wealth feeling demoralized?
No doubt the causes are multiple and complex. I’d offer one avenue to explore in coming to an answer. Attia has devoted his life as a medical doctor and research science with the goal of making a positive difference to the lives of others. His mission is to make my life and yours better.
The pandemic sent him a direct message—all of your work can be undone in months. That would cause anyone to feel overwhelmed with a sense of futility. You work hard to improve yourself and the lives of thousands of others only realize it could all be destroyed so easily.
Attia came back a couple of times to the point his sense of futility came from the realization that he couldn’t protect myself or the people around me. No matter what personal efforts he made to shelter others the outcome was beyond his control. No matter what he did with his knowledge, skills and experience, or how much time he spent examining the data, research and think, none of these efforts would change what was going outside his house. Covid-19 had locked him down physically and mentally.
Demoralization follows from the epiphany of helplessness. No act of will or application of wisdom or creative thought—my arsenal I bring to the world—can keep mef or my loved ones safe; whatever I have to offer others has no intrinsic meaning. By putting myself in front of a public seeking guidance, because they trust my training and judgement—aren’t I committing a fraud—letting my audience assume that by coming to me, I have some advice offer that can be used to fight the battle of existence. If I can only recite the medieval formula of washing hands, wearing a mask and avoiding close contact with others, what value am I adding that thousands of other voices aren’t already shouting from every platform?
My solution is much older than the medieval period; it’s thousands of years old. Like we wash our hands, we need to cleanse our minds. Both hands and minds have a long lineage in dealing with a pandemic.
Stoicism is a philosophy that offers insight into why there is a growing sense of demoralization, depression and despair. One of the central features of stoicism incorporated from the writings of Epictetus, a slave, who along with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, are founders of the Stoics, is that wisdom meant understanding what is in your control and what is not.
What can we control? We can’t personally control the sudden appearance of a coronavirus that leads to a pandemic. Even though scientists warned one was inevitable. We don’t do well with abstractions. When a pandemic strikes we seek to control it. We psychologically invest in finding a way to defeat it. When that fails, we switch to an emotional response such as anger, fear, or depression. The Stoic brings a different perspective. He or she acknowledges that nature delivers all kinds of unpleasant surprises. Life is moving from one surprise to the next while maintaining that this is a natural state. The Stoic may be as initially surprised as anyone else but what sets her apart is she doesn’t meet the surprise with emotions as anger, depression or anxiety.
The Sars-CoV2 virus isn’t angry, upset or revengeful. It’s not even alive in any sense that we can understand. It is a piece of self-replicating RNA wrapped in lipids. The virus, like us, is a by-product of nature. One that just happens to create a helpless feeling in the mind of the host whose brain and knowledge of the world has evolved enough to recognize that it can kill us. It wakes us up to the fact that we’ve forgotten that there are many things and events that can be catastrophic. In the midst of a pandemic it is difficult to distinguish between things that are catastrophic and those that are transformative. A fog over that boundary line obscures the two possibilities. Our species has been through this before. The lesson is pandemics are short-term catastrophe and long-term transformation.
By increasing our awareness by seeking to move our thinking up to a meta level, we broaden our perspective. From this new vantage point, we see ourself in a wide-angle shot where we are one amongst many other people, events, and actions—all bound in obvious and non-obvious ways, the panorama is in motion, dynamic and unpredictable. From the new view, we are able to cool the heat of emotions supercharged by outside uncontrollable forces. The purpose is to diminish the negativity as we accept the force of nature as a reality independent of our thoughts and actions.
If the response is neither I nor the government or experts can control the pandemic, make it go away, tell us what will happen next, inevitability demoralization sets in. We look high and low for the high-technology community to save the day. No one believes that day will be soon if ever. We have no choice but to revert to the remedies of ancient times—wear a face mask, avoid crowds, exercise social distancing, and quarantine. Rather than technological fixes, we return to practical things our ancestors used to limit their risk to contagion. They suffered far more losses than we will. We’ve had an easy, soft life and that has separated us from large numbers of dead caused by an act of nature. These small personal actions and our thoughts are within our power.
When we see others not exercising a wise response mechanism to protect themselves and others, we can become angry and demoralized. Intelligence is a deceptive garden as it conceals seeds of hubris. It is wisdom that provides the tool to uproot that seed and makes us aware that we are humble gardener whose knowledge, experience and intelligence is constantly tested. The wise test what they think they know about the world and adjust their behavior to what they confront in reality. An intelligence that isn’t used to realign knowledge with experience will fail to deliver the tranquility of mind needed to weather a natural upheaval.
Stoicism is a guide for the journey to tranquility in a dangerous world. It is part solace and part peace of mind.
Where should we seek solace? By coming to terms with the way we react to events out of our control. We can control our personal sense of peace and solace. The technique is straightforward but takes practice to master. You no longer clash in a battle with a foe you know will defeat you. Victory is not in your control.
We are not in a fair fight or fair competition with the forces of nature. We’ve sought science to go into the workings of the human body, to understand our biology at a granular level and mapping connections in this intricate system. Attia and others strive and have followers who digest their latest reports on longevity research. The pandemic has alerted me that I’ve bought into the illusion we are getting control of the biological forces that cause us to age. That would be defeating nature. I can see more clearly how difficult that is. I believe Attia also sees that nature can take any punch we throw at her and keep moving straight at us. She lands one good punch and we are finished.
It finally sinks in. Our true reality. Just staying alive is not a given. A virus can change everything and there’s nothing you or I can do to protect you. We are on our own with medieval prescriptions until there is an effective treatment or vaccine. There’s the other realization that deflates morale: we can’t control our own bodies defense system against outside forces. Longevity research is premised on a certain belief that once we master the biological code to stop ageing we have overcome the worst of our fears—a miserable decline leading to a prolonged act of dying. Then a virus comes along and showcases our vulnerability to outside random forces that can kill millions of us in weeks or months.
A stoic wouldn’t ignore or run from the threat of a pandemic. Marcus Aurelius didn’t flee Rome during a long Antonine plague period. He ruled through fifteen years as plague wiped out a third of the population of the empire. How does a stoic act in a pandemic?
“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” ― Marcus Aurelius
The stoic wisdom gave us a mission; it was to be good and to be kind. The acts of such a person will be virtuous. May be the plague years taught Marcus Aurelius these insights. May be our pandemic years will provide the same opportunity to relearn what Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations.
As for Peter Attia, his pain and vulnerability made him real in a profoundly human way. What a Stoic would observe is he chose demoralization as his response. The virus didn’t make the choice. He did and we all make a choice of our to respond.
We’ve overestimated our own powers to control and underestimated the uncontrollable forces of nature and how own control over how we choose to react to those forces. The pandemic is an opportunity review our hubris and exchange it for humility. It’s time to return to our gardens and plant with our thoughts, with care and attention realizing what we choose will never be perfect. And not only will perfection always allude us, we will accept that are mastery of the world is limited. Bounded, flawed and short-lived as we are, there is a majesty in walking through your garden and discovering beauty in every petal, realizing how delicate, fragile and fleeing life is. As Seneca wrote seventy summers is more than enough to master and enjoy your own garden of finding the seeds of your choice blossomed into happiness. It’s never too late to rotate your crop with acts of kindness.