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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