One of the most depressingly ironic events of the COVID-19 pandemic happened in the early days of the crisis. Hearing reports of a growing problem in China, the US government sent untrained and unprotected observers to China to find out, firsthand, what was happening on the ground. These officials did as they were tasked… and then returned to cities all over America on commercial flights, bringing with them the very virus they had been sent to help stop.
It is the kind of incompetent recklessness that will draw knowing, cathartic chuckles and guffaws of disbelief when the definitive documentary about this crisis comes out in a few years time. Inevitably it will be a film replete with lessons that, to many, will be deeply revelatory. But to us it will seem like old news. Because what we are facing today is a timeless fact of existence. A fact that it is never too early to learn.
We humans, so desperate to prevent ruin, often ride out to meet it.
Seneca saw this firsthand in Rome. Nero was paranoid that people were plotting his overthrow, so he took increasingly violent measures to protect himself, making far more enemies in the process. “He who indulges empty fears,” Seneca would later write in one of his plays, “earns himself real ones.”
Now this is not to say coronavirus was an empty fear—it was of course very real. But time spent shoring up defenses at home, where you have control of the environment and the apparatuses required to make a difference, clearly would have been more productive (and less counterproductive) than rushing out unprepared to study the problem abroad—within a country where you have no control and only some sway, and that is both politically and preternaturally disinclined to provide a full or transparent picture of events that would actually be useful to your efforts back home.
Put simply, it was a fool’s errand, run foolishly.
One might argue that the massive stimulus bills that governments are passing are of a similar foolhardy logic: Scared of prolonged economic depression, they are spending enormous amounts of money in a rushed and haphazard fashion. Meanwhile, the root cause of the economic difficulties—the virus and the death it’s causing—either remains unaddressed or is being pursued with only a fraction of the vigor that economic solutions are being pursued with. It’s quite possible we’ll end up with a worst-of-both-worlds situation: unforced economic calamity on top of the hard scientific realities and existential consequences of a viral pandemic. We will have ridden out on a wave of stimulus cash to a ruinous future we literally cannot see.
This is the reason the Stoics practiced emotional control. This is why they trained for difficulty. It wasn’t for fun. It wasn’t about deprivation for its own sake. It was preparation for precisely the kinds of situations where making the wrong choice not only doesn’t solve the problem, but it makes the problem much, much worse, in part by bringing new problems with it to the party.
We must not ride out to meet ruin. We must not create real problems while we fight and argue about fake ones.
No, we have to be disciplined. We have to be smart. We must stay within ourselves and focus only on what we can control. We can’t rush. We have to do what’s right, and we have to do it the right way.