The Stoic’s Response to Corona

“What do I control here?” is the question you need right now

At its core, Stoicism is about one thing and one thing alone: separating what you control from what you don’t. There are other good habits to practice, beneficial attitudes to pick up, and many concepts to study, but, at the end of the day, they all follow from this one commitment.

Imagine looking at everything in life through this filter. Your thoughts, your emotions, the events that transpire. It all comes down to a single question:

What do I control here?

Before reacting, initiating, even thinking or processing your feelings, make an effort to dissect what’s in your grasp from what isn’t — and detach from the latter. You’ll be calmer, act more rationally, and won’t abandon hope at the first sign of difficulty.

Generally, this’ll allow you to enjoy the good times while they last without forgetting that they’ll pass. Meanwhile, negative events, thoughts, and feelings won’t disturb your inner peace. They’ll still be there, like flies whizzing around an ox in the sun — they just won’t bother you as much.

In light of the current coronavirus situation, a calm mind is more important than ever. Let’s discern what specifically we control and don’t control about it.

You don’t control:

  • How many of the people you know will get the disease

  • What protective measures your government will take

  • Which countries you can still travel to, be it for work or pleasure

  • How much of your money will be refunded from previously booked trips

  • Whether your city will impose a curfew or not

  • Which goods are available in the store whenever you go shopping

  • If your company will allow you to work from home or not

All of these questions will receive answers, but you won’t have much of a say in them, if any. That’s scary. Knowing you could not have done anything about them, however, should not send you into a tailspin. Instead, let it provide you with comfort and the ability to then focus on what you actually do control:

  • Washing your hands as often and thoroughly as you can

  • Avoiding handshakes and close, face-to-face contact

  • Staying home unless it’s important or necessary to go out

  • Letting everyone you’ve had contact know when you feel sick

  • Advocating for a work-from-home policy at your company

  • Proactively calling travel agencies for refunds

  • Buying what you need but not hogging what others could use

Stoicism is often branded as a philosophy of the cold-hearted. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a philosophy of doing the best you can but then not worrying about what lies beyond your current potential.

In case of coronavirus, the right steps are simple to understand but very hard to follow. It’s tough to avoid your friends. It’s not fun to chase after your money. Maybe, you don’t like working from home. Once you understand, however, that there’s a limited number of actions you control, you can give yourself peace of mind by taking them. Doing what’s right is enough.

The plane of action is one of three levels of the self in Stoic philosophy. Since it’s the most tangible — we can see our results right away— it provides us with the most relief. As you continue to apply the Stoic dichotomy — What do I control here? — to how you take action in life, however, the habit of separating meanders into the other two areas: perception and will.

Perception is about what you see and feel and how you make sense of the two. It’s about forming judgments, making decisions, building trust, and not letting your senses fool you. If you see a person coughing, does that mean they have coronavirus? No, but that’s what your fear-driven brain wants you to believe. A Stoic would ask: Can I really diagnose this person? Do I control all the information? Since the answer is no, she would just go about her day.

Our will determines how committed we are to moving forward. It’s a sense of doggedness, a refusal to give in to a bad environment or let go of a strong, positive, empowering belief. When your boyfriend gets the virus, will you break down and cry or help him quarantine himself? Don’t choose despair, choose to fight and live another day. Again, the question is: What do I control here? You can’t undo the damage, but you can help your partner heal faster.

When our perception fails us, we take the wrong actions. When our actions fail, our will is tested. How can we remedy false impressions, find the right steps to take, and summon the courage to continue after a setback? According to some of the smartest minds in history, we have a universal tool to achieve all of that and more, and it takes the shape of a simple question:

What do I control here?

That’s the Stoic’s response to corona — and it can handle much more than a virus.

-Nik

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