Written by Saad Saeed Ph.D., Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
2020 started with a bang on January 30, 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) declares the outbreak of Coronavirus as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and on March 11 the WHO declares the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. In the days that followed, Global stock markets crashed due to continued concerns over COVID-19, the effects of which are visible in every part of life.
Within a few months, the entire political and monetary framework of the modern age was called into question. Many people in the 21st century are dependent on external things for their mental and spiritual peace. This is especially prevalent in the capitalist countries of the Western world.
In the Western countries people dealt with the fear of the pandemic by buying and stockpiling essential supplies. We are brought up in a world and culture where if something goes wrong we buy stuff, it has been hardwired in our minds that buying and hoarding things will save us and give us peace of mind. In other words, we consume in order to manage our emotional states. Philosophical and rational thinking, on the other hand, are in scarce supply.
Yet, we have a great need for philosophical and rational thinking at the moment. I think there is perhaps no better candidate for this than the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. One key aspect of this philosophy is summed up by Marcus Aurelius,
“Adapt thyself to the things with which thy lot has been cast: and the men among whom thou hast received thy portion, love them, but do it truly, sincerely” (Meditations, VI, 39)
It is the job of a stoic not to wish for reality to be something other than it is but to embrace it and deal with it in the best possible way.
“The healthy eye ought to see all visible things and not to say, ‘I wish for green things’; for this is the condition of a diseased eye. And the healthy hearing and smelling ought to be ready to perceive all that can be heard and smelled. And the healthy stomach ought to be with respect to all food just as the mill with respect to all things which it is formed to grind. And accordingly the healthy understanding ought to be prepared for everything which happens; but that which says, ‘Let my dear children live, and let all men praise whatever I may do,’ is an eye which seeks for green things, or teeth which seek for soft things” (Meditations, X, 35)
The wonderful thing about stoicism is that it has answers and principles to deal with whatever life throws at us. It’s not about running away from the problems of life or ordering gods to change destiny but rather to face them with the principles that nature has provided us.
The question we need to ask ourselves is if will we allow this external event to change our internal states? Will we allow it to make us fearful or worried? Is it enough of a reason to make our souls sad and problematic?
Yet, what are we to do when things on the outside go wrong? The failures of the medical systems, not being allowed to meet with loved ones, mass unemployment, travel restrictions, lack of economical resources and so on. We are forced to look within, and Stoicism provides wonderful tools and principles to enhance our inner courage and deepen that dimension of humanity which is so often overlooked.
The famous Stoic philosopher Epictetus was born a slave. His approach can be summed in one phrase: “Some things are in our control and others not.” We have no power over external things. Knowing which things are in our power and which are not is a wonderful start to living a life of wisdom.
We spend so much of our lives in fear of not having enough time. We cry and debate with the gods that they have given us a short life, while simultaneously wasting the precious time we’re given. As Marcus Aurelius said,
“’If you seek tranquility, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.Because most what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’’ have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.” (IV. 24)
So many useless things we do and so many unnecessary thoughts, fears, and emotions we waste our life with.
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it.” Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
There is so much fear, blame, and worry in the world right now. People are blaming their governments, politicians are blaming other countries. Racism is at an all-time high, domestic violence is increasing, the manic depressive nature is more observable now than in any other recent time. Nobody taught us the simple ability to sit quietly with ourselves and our families in a quiet room.
Why is there so much tension and upheaval? Even in the modern world the answer lies not in getting more stuff or in wishfully thinking that God will change his course just because we humans don’t like it. It lies in philosophical thinking and spiritual evolution of soul and mind to evolve us into a world where we can fit better into the system of the universe.
The Coronavirus crisis will end, and it may consume some of us with itself. But the most important question will be: What did we learn? How much did we evolve as human beings? Did we become more resilient and generous, did we enhance our tolerance level and accept the simplicity of living?
In order to be proud of our eventual answers to these questions, it is important to have a perspective of Love and wisdom, not of superstition and ignorance at any given moment. To be always the same person, unchanged in sudden pain or facing any trouble.
“To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.” (IV, 49).