Remember: You Don’t Control What Happens, You Control How You Respond

The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. 

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5

What better opportunity to practice this “chief task in life” than the one we’re currently facing? COVID-19 is here. If it isn’t where you live, there is a good chance it will be soon. No amount of yelling at the TV will make it go away. Cursing the origin of the virus, being racist, perpetuating conspiracy theories, and hoarding toilet paper will not save you. It only distracts you from the many tasks at hand. Neither will sticking your head in the sand and pretending it’s “not that bad.” All those are wasting your time that could be spent saving your life and others.

What you can control, as always, is how you respond. What matters is not what other people are doing or have done, but what you do. That means: Keeping up to date with the latest advice from the World Health Organization (and then actually following it!). Wash your hands often, cover your nose when you sneeze, avoid large public gatherings, cancel unnecessary travel and work meetings. Don’t be stupid. Don’t think you’re the exception. Don’t do things that benefit you, at the expense of others. If you feel sick, stay at home. Stay at home even if you don’t feel sick. Do your part.

The goal now is to flatten the curve. To slow the spread of the virus until our hospitals can handle them. To prevent the unnecessary spreading of the virus. And to prevent unnecessary overloading of medical professionals, emergency services, airlines, and other critical infrastructure, so that the people who actually need it can access it. No one individual can accomplish this by themselves, but each of us, acting rightly, collectively, can make a big difference. As Zeno famously said, “Well-being is realized in small steps, but it is no small thing.” 

We realize this well-being and fight this virus by the choices we make right now. Some of those choices include:

  • Practice social distancing: as much as possible, stay away from people outside of your family. Avoid social events and public gatherings, work from home if possible. If you have employees, do what you can so they can do the same. And implement common-sense measures so that your employees and customers are safe: reduce face-to-face interactions as much as possible, grant generous sick leave, and limit the number of customers at a single time.
  • Cancel or postpone events if you have them. Make them remote-access, if possible. Do not prioritize your convenience or entertainment over the potential spread of the virus.
  • Practice safety measures: wash your hands as much as possible, especially before you eat. Don’t touch your face, and cough into a tissue or your elbow. Don’t shake hands with people, press buttons with knuckles or elbows, and avoid food that is uncooked.
  • Help others who are in more precarious situations. If you know your neighbor is elderly and planning to make a grocery run, see if you can help them get what they need without leaving their house. Think of the wonderful generosity of this Chinese company sending face masks to Italy (with a quote from Seneca on them no less!)
  • Hold off on visiting elderly friends or family members. Yes, you’re worried about them. Yes, you miss them. But you put them and their community at risk by stopping at their old folks home or visiting their house. Even if you feel healthy, even if the person you’re visiting seems to be in good health, the safest option is to wait to see them.
  • Don’t hoard: hoarding essential goods hurts other members of the community who lack resources to prepare. Slowly stock up with non-perishable foods and goods so that others can do the same. Long lines at stores only make things worse. 
  • Along those lines, don’t tie up medical resources that you don’t need. Save masks for doctors, nurses, first responders, and others who need them in the course of their jobs. And don’t forget that for now our testing supply is sorely limited; do your best not to tie up the critical resource of COVID-19 tests, and avoid being a hypochondriac.
  • Self-quarantine and self-isolate: if you believe you may have been exposed to COVID-19, stay in your home for two weeks to keep others safe. 
  • Use your time wisely: don’t let the possible weeks or months of isolation be for nothing. You can’t control how long you’ll need to engage in social distancing, but you can control if you spend that time productively. The version of you who steps out of quarantine at some future date can be better than the version that entered it, if you try.
  • Batch your online orders if you’re stocking up to reduce the need for inefficient shipments and stress on already stressed supply chains. 
  • Educate: don’t spread misinformation about the virus. Instead, make sure others know how to best handle the spread of the virus. If you’re someone with a platform, your number one obligation right now is to not spread bullshit or breaking information. You’re not helping, you’re hurting. 
  • If you get sick, isolate yourself at home as long as symptoms remain moderate. If you have trouble breathing, are an older adult (70+), have pre-existing lung conditions or are immunocompromised, be ready to call your doctor or visit an ER.
  • Remember that panic doesn’t help. Rushing to sell your stocks; ignoring the needs of others; freaking out; being cross with or cruel to others. You know what this does? It takes a bad situation and makes it worse.
  • Cherish the people you love and the present moment, as scary as it is. It is all we have for certain.

We study Stoicism for moments like these. To remain calm in the face of chaos. To put aside irrational thoughts and develop a plan to keep us moving forward. To be able to spread the only positive form of contagion there is: calm. So we can acquire wisdom from tragedy and danger. This our chance to embody these teachings, to prove them, when it counts. When life and liberty are on the line. 

As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations:

“It stares you in the face. No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.”

So do your part. Put your study to practice and inspire those around you to do the same. We are all individually the answer, in the choices we make. What we need from you now is what we’ve always needed and talked about here: Courage. Self-discipline. Justice. Wisdom. 


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