It’s no question that the world is an alarming place right now. Iran is saber rattling in the Middle East. China is ascendant. North Korea is a rogue state with nuclear capabilities. The oceans are rising. Rhetoric grows more hateful and more divisive. And of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping across the globe, resulting in nationwide quarantines with no real timeline for when things will return to normal.
It was all so sudden too. Just two months ago the economy was near an all-time high, we had travel plans, and we thought we had a pretty good idea what the rest of the year held. Now, many of us are unemployed, stuck at home indefinitely, or both. It’s enough to make even the strongest among us panic. And this is natural. The Stoics wrote that fear is an initial reaction that is out of our control. But that staying afraid is a choice.
Using 2,000 year old wisdom, we put together this guide to help you remain calm so you can make better decisions and, hopefully, come out on the other side better than you were before.
Accept What’s Outside Of Your Control, Get To Work On What Is
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” — Epictetus, The Art Of Living
For many of us, the worst part of this crisis is the helplessness we feel in the face of it. If you own a business, chances are that your sales have suffered or you’ve had to temporarily close down, if not worse. If you live with an elderly or at-risk person, you’re likely doing your best to isolate them but still living with the fact that, ultimately, it may not be enough. In the face of so much we can’t control, so many things that won’t change no matter how hard we try, it’s easy to forget how much we can do, even if it doesn’t feel like much.
In The Art Of Living, Epictetus continues; “Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are directly subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.” For today, we can add to this using our time wisely, not panicking, and doing what we can to slow the spread of the virus. Outside of our control is how long the pandemic will last and the coming ramifications that it will bring on the world.
For now, do your best to always keep your mind focused on what it can do and do it. The rest is out of our control.
Focus On The Smallest Thing You Can Do Right Now
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can— if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.”-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the importance of becoming just one percent better every day. This may not seem like much but he writes “The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.” None of us know how long the crisis will last or how long we’re going to be stuck at home. But we are in control of what we do to improve during this time. Don’t be fooled, the version of you that comes out of quarantine can be much better than the person that went in, if you make tiny positive changes every single day.
Zeno said it best: “Well being is realized by small steps, but it is no small thing.”
Examine The Costs Of Panicking Or Emotional Reaction
“How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!” — Marcus Aurelius
The astronaut Chris Hadfield has said, about space travel, that “there is no problem so bad you can’t make it worse.” The same concept applies to everyday life. All you have to do is think back, have you ever been proud of anything you did out of anger? Have you ever had to endure the shame of having to see the same damaged hole in the wall for weeks and months after your emotions have come and gone? Anger has never helped you before so why would it help now? History is full of examples of people who made decisions they regretted their whole lives under its influence! Understand, all giving in to panic or fear or anger will do is take away your ability to keep a cool head and do what needs to be done right now.
When things are falling apart, it’s natural for our first reaction to be emotional. It can’t be helped. But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. According to the Stoics, human beings are endowed with the power of reason precisely to protect us from these reactions. It’s why Seneca said that “the best remedy for anger is delay,” and Marcus advised “quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts.” Remember, nothing is made better by panicking, don’t feed your emotions. Instead, try and constantly bring your mind back to a place of stillness. A place from where it can make better decisions and be better equipped to handle whatever gets thrown at it.
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” – Seneca
If you’re reading this, chances are that where you live is either on lockdown or actively encouraging people to stay home to stop the spread of the virus. It’s not convenient, but it doesn’t matter. It’s what everybody has to do to stop the spread of the virus and protect the people that can’t protect themselves. Being stuck at home may be anxiety-inducing, our roommates may not be easy to live with. But what if instead we saw this time as a unique opportunity to slow down. To recalibrate our priorities. It’s definitely a lot easier to do this now when you know everybody’s in the same boat. So why not spend this time getting to know yourself, spending some time alone and just observing your thoughts?
You certainly couldn’t do this when you were constantly surrounded by other people and even if you’re worried about what the future holds, would it really hurt if you made it a point to stop worrying for at least a small portion of the day? How much better could you be if instead you used some of this time to learn a new skill or adopt a new hobby? Don’t forget that the person who comes out of quarantine can be better than the person who went in. You can be more thoughtful, considerate, and helpful to others if you resolve to make the best use of this time while you have the opportunity.
And if it’s hard at first, keep in mind what Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius “You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good.” Stillness isn’t easy to find, it’s a constant practice, and the search for it can often be more frustrating than not. But it’s a skill that nobody will be able to take from you, no matter what happens.
Have Confidence In Your Ability To Make The Best Of Anything
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” — Marcus Aurelius
As we’ve said, we have no control over how long the pandemic is going to last but nothing changes that, whether we want to or not, we all have to go through it. Marcus writes elsewhere in his Meditations “a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” This, coming from a man who, during his time as emperor, had to lead his people through a crisis much like the one we’re facing now, except with almost none of the benefits of modern medicine, seems particularly fitting now. Remember Epictetus’s words, “The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic class material.” Both of these men knew that there’s no use in bemoaning the obstacles in front of us. And that, more than anything, these obstacles provide the necessary fuel to make us stronger, better, and more resilient.
Remember what Marcus said to comfort himself during the Antonine plague, “To bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before, and will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging.” If we stop and look at those that came before us; those that faced unimaginable hardship and yet still not only overcame it but became better for it, we can gain the necessary perspective to know that we are capable of doing the same thing. And by doing so, we can inspire others to do the same. Have confidence in your ability to make the best of anything.
Limit Your News Consumption
“Do the things external which fall upon you distract you? Give yourself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around.” — Marcus Aurelius
There’s no doubt that whatever impact COVID-19 has had on the place we live, has made even the best of us at least a little anxious. So what do we do to deal with this anxiety? We go on twitter. We watch the news. We check out what’s going on five thousand miles away from us. There’s a reason that the first principle Epictetus gives for living a happy life in The Art Of Living is to distinguish between what you can and can’t control. It helps you see what you can actually improve on. But what do all these things have in common? We’re going out of our ways to focus on the exact opposite of this.
There’s nothing wrong with being updated on what’s going on. It’s important. But deliberately choosing to make most of what you expose yourself veer negative? Not only can you do nothing about the majority of what you see on the news but it takes time away from actively making a positive difference in your own life. Hundreds of thousands may be living in homeless shelters, sick, and in need of help. But how many of us can afford to help hundreds of thousands of people? Now, how many of us can help one or two people? The point is that most of what we call being informed not only has little to no relevance to our own lives but it takes us away from leading the good life. From putting all of our attention and effort into becoming better and making a difference where we can.
Understand, it’s most important to remain calm in times of crisis; when chaos seems to reign supreme. And peace can only come from being centered, from “doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions.” So, during this time of social isolation, find something that you can do to help yourself, even if that something is just learning to manage your emotions. This situation may be awful but doing at least one thing right is much better than feeling helpless in the face of something so much bigger than ourselves. Limit your inputs.
Stick To A Routine
“In many circumstances, we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit.” — Musonius Rufus
No matter what was going on in the empire, Marcus Aurelius made sure to carve out some time for quiet reflection every morning, it’s what eventually left us with his Meditations. Seneca reflected similarly every evening, considering this reflection one of the most essential parts of his day.. Both of them understood that when times are at their most chaotic is when it’s most important to create some semblance of order for ourselves. A routine gives us a sense of certainty about our days; no matter what else happens, we know we’ll go for a walk in the morning or sit down to read for 30 minutes after lunch.
Routines also have a calming effect; they let our brains start the morning off on the right foot or power down to get a good night’s sleep. Fred Rogers, the beloved children’s television show host, woke up at the same time every day for an hour of prayer and meditation before going for a swim. This routine helped set the tone for his days and allowed him to maintain his trademark demeanor even when dealing with the most difficult of people. It also allotted him the proper amount of reflection that’s necessary for the flourishing of any human being.
Understand, a routine is something you can control. In the calm of morning before the kids are awake, whether or not the job market is exploding, you can stick to the rituals you know will bring you peace. And this, in turn, will let you approach your daily obstacles not with the frenzy of fear and anxiety, but from a better place. A place of calm and stillness.
Take Care Of Your Relationships
“I can lay down for mankind a rule, in short compass, for our duties in human relationships: all that you behold, that which comprises both god and man, is one – we are the parts of one great body. Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us from the same source and to the same end. She engendered in us mutual affection, and made us prone to friendships.” — Seneca
Epictetus wrote that our duties are revealed through our relations with one another and that “once you know who you are and to whom you are linked, you will know what to do.” Marcus similarly said, “Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” Elsewhere in the Meditations he even told himself “When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you…For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us, and present themselves in abundance as far as is possible.”
Although Stoicism is a philosophy that stresses independence and strength, moral rectitude and inner-life, it’s essential that we don’t mistake this as a justification for isolation or loneliness. We are not islands, we are social animals. Only the beasts can get through this alone. We need community, we need friends. We get something out of giving, and we are made better for caring and being cared for. That’s what the idea of sympatheia is really about—the warm, snug feeling of knowing you’re a part of a larger whole. Relationships make life worth living. It is key to a good life. Do not neglect them.
So, as you go through this difficult time, remember this: It’s both your duty and your obligation to be there for those you love, even if it’s just by giving them someone they can talk to and confide in. This is what makes life worth living and gives us a sense of purpose. It’s why Viktor Frankl wrote “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved,” after his experience being held prisoner in a series of German concentration camps. In the worst possible moments, love is what sustains us and gives life a sense of meaning and purpose when nothing else can. Take care of your relationships.
Dead Time Or Alive Time?
Just because we’re stuck indoors doesn’t mean that this time has been taken from us. We don’t have to sit around watching Netflix or refreshing our news feeds the whole day. Instead, we can use this time to learn new skills, hone our critical thinking skills, and learn to manage our emotions so we can be as productive as possible no matter what the circumstances are. We created the Daily Stoic Alive Time Challenge to help you do just that. The 14 actionable challenges are designed to help you make sure that the person who steps out of social isolation is better than the person who went in. It comes with access to a group Slack channel for accountability, over 10,000 words of exclusive content, and a daily audio companion from author Ryan Holiday. Plus, we’re giving five dollars of every sale to Feeding America. We hope you’ll check it out.