A Guide to Stoicism in the Age of COVID

It’s been six months since “15 days to stop the spread” was put in place and only just recently are we starting to see hints of a light at the end of this tunnel. If you had never really paused to take stock of your life before the ‘Rona hit, you’ve just had a nice, long time-out to sit and think about your actions, or lack thereof. If you are as stubborn as I am, and still haven’t taken a moment to reflect on where you are and where you want to be in life during chaotic times; well, take a knee, or else that might not be a light at the end of the tunnel, it might be a train.

How prepared were you when we pushed the pause button on society? We’re going through a quasi-biblical “flood” here, both globally and nationally and the hard truth is, no one has any idea how any of this going to end. The reality is, as we have been given an up close and unconstitutionally personal dose of recently, there have been and will continue to be countless more—massive failures of judgement, government overreaches, and colossal incompetence on almost every level of government, attempting to stumble their way through this.

Two things we know for sure are that there will be mass casualties both directly and indirectly from COVID-19, and holding on to a belief that the government is going to intervene on your behalf in a positive way is naive at best.

Marcus Aralias said, “You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Meaning, you should only worry about the things that you can control. Don’t waste time burning calories on things you have no control over. I’ve noted a few practical applications from his Meditations, some ancient wisdom for a new era of Stoicism.

Mentally, we all tend to get locked into our ideological patterns after a certain age but if one thing has become clear, it’s that most people did not take this opportunity to broaden their intellectual horizons. People often ask, “What’s the one book you would want to be stuck on a desert island with?” Some people took a Howard Zinn classic to the proverbial island and soaked up every word, others took from the Ben Shapiro catalogue and sped read from cover to cover on the Isle of Rona. Too bad more people didn’t bring George Orwell with them. I think we’d all benefit by reading 1984 again and remind ourselves that Winston is not supposed to be a trouble making villain. Animal Farm would have come in handy around May when Chaz tried to act out the Manor Farm revolution in real time.

The point is, your brain is a muscle, you have to exercise it and you need to change up your workouts or you end up like an arm-wrestling champion with one arm Hulked out. There are very few news outlets that aren’t biased, and I don’t just mean left leaning or right leaning, but full on propaganda machines. If you’re only getting one carefully crafted side of a narrative, then you only know half the story and 9 times out of 10, there is a legitimate other side of the story. Find a liberal source and a conservative source that you can tolerate and make a mental Venn Diagram, put what they both say in the middle, those are the facts. Everything else is opinion and spin.

Social media is a great way to keep up with every human you’ve ever met or kill ten minutes on the throne, but hours turned to days and now months can erode your sanity like some Chinese water torture. Be very conscious of your emotional state while scrolling through Twitter or Facebook and you see some gaslighting meme saying, “Some of ya’ll confused, defund the police doesn’t mean defund the police. Duh!” or “Protesters aren’t spreading the virus.” For your own mental well-being, you have to leave all of that alone. Just worry about you.

At work, we all must make bold professional choices from time to time but like the song says, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” Just before the shutdown, I heard about a group of armchair radicals attempting to execute a mini coup d’état when they were all suddenly sent home to work remotely and the whole mutiny had to be paused. Awkward. Tables can turn without a moment’s notice. One minute you’re eating the bar, the next minute, the bar is eating you. I’m not suggesting that you play it safe all the time but there is a balance, a Machiavellian wisdom to taking stock of which way the wind is blowing before making extreme decisions in your professional career.

You want to have a solid Plan B also; in case you do find yourself on the wrong end of the bar analogy. If you have people who are depending on your income, having a side hustle that you can slide into if something happens to your main gig is as necessary as having life insurance. When the job market is strong, it’s often necessary to flex your negotiating muscles but there is a balance that you should always be mindful of. When the supply and demand tables are turned, you want to be known as someone who is fair and reasonable. Be competent and make yourself indispensable in your job. Be as loyal and honest as you can be or at least don’t be a back-stabbing liar. After all, you never know which jobs the government will deem essential or not. Just look out for yourself, is what I’m getting at.

Something that I found wildly irritating while we were all being lectured to about “following the science” and the emphasis put on masks, was that there was very little talk about what we could all be doing to take care of our physical health. The best defense is a good offense. I’ve been made fun of my whole adult life for intentionally building up my immune system by doing things like not using hand sanitizer after shaking hands and eating off the floor. Suddenly, we all were forced to go into Bubble Boy mode, eroding our natural immunities. Some doctors said from the beginning that sunlight, vitamin D, exercise, and not drinking excessively is your best bet when you get a virus, not if you get this particular virus.

Eating healthy or at least not just eating fast food and sugar drinks, taking it easy on the booze, and regular exercise should have been the first thing the experts recommended. All they talked about, though, were masks and staying home, leaving every schlubby, petty tyrant to deputize themselves as Sheriff of Mask-ville.

I grew up with a pretty rough bunch of guys. A lot of close friends died way too young or got caught up in the revolving door of the state correctional institutions. By our 30s though, things seemed to have cooled down a bit. It seemed that if the dragon of addiction was going to get you, it would have eaten you by then. As our prefrontal cortexes developed, boys matured to men. Since the lockdowns came, I’ve lost four childhood friends to previously dormant addictions. The statistics rolling in are painting a bleak picture of the unspoken destruction that a prolonged cocktail of isolation and underemployment create. If you were still flirting with your past inner demons before COVID-19, the lockdowns seem to have rekindled old flames with a furious passion.

Did you spend those first weeks locked in your flooded house wishing you had called a plumber when you had the chance, and now your partner won’t let you forget it? We can make it through tough times, especially if we work with our intimate partners as a team, but if that partnership is more like Ike and Tina than Sonny and Cher, you may be better off going at it alone. Decide whether your relationship is worth saving. If it’s not, get out now. If it is, do everything within your power to make it the best it can be. You’re going to need each other.

We all get lazy. Maybe you spent years phoning in your relationship, meeting up with your friends at the bar for happy hour that lasts until closing time. Maybe you took them for granted because let’s face it, you turn more heads than your partner when you walk in the restaurant together. You barely noticed when they started hitting the gym, focusing on themselves because you were too busy watching Sports Center and smoking weed. Suddenly being stuck together 24/7 sped up the split, which is fine if you were both headed towards an inevitable divorce anyway. But if you thought you would always have time to make it up to them, waiting for Christmas or a birthday to fix things, you may have blown your chance.

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” —Marcus Aurelius

I know a couple with a real Goodfellas relationship to say the least. Mind you, it takes two to tango here but the short of it is, the guy was living like Hank Hill of the used car business while his missus was playing Karen only without the money. The ‘Rona couldn’t have come at a worse time for this family. He had just got caught with his pants down, hand in the savings jar, headed to mandatory rehab, the whole nine. COVID hit and people stopped buying cars, that was the last straw. Being unemployed can be devastating but usually you can use that time and energy to pull yourself together. Imagine getting laid off and not being able to do anything about it, too many people have. For the last six months this family has had to endure every kind of misery imaginable, everything from the kids flinching when Daddy goes to hug them to two failed suicide attempts.

Don’t wait to get your life in order. Marcus Aurelius, who went through a plague of his own, asked, “What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?” The lockdowns just gave life a turbo boost in whichever direction you were already heading. The best time to plant a tree was 100 years ago, the second-best time is today! If you were coasting through your life back in March, fair enough, you’re not alone and I’m sure the last six months have been rough. But if you haven’t used this last half a year to work on straightening out your life, that’s willful blindness.

Things could always be worse, and I don’t think you have to be uber pessimistic to think things could easily continue down this dastardly spiral. Don’t be the foolish pig who built his house of straw, the wolf is at the door huffing and puffing. If you haven’t been spending the last six months straightening out your affairs, doing some soul searching, maybe second guessing who we give power over our lives to politically, when we all just got a crash course in the utter incompetence of big government.

When I see “2020 memes” warning Marty McFly not to take the DeLorean there, it feels like a subtle prayer to the Gods. Believing that we’re going to shake all of this off like a New Year’s hangover on January 1st, 2021 is pollyannish, wishful thinking. We have an election in two months that every candidate except Jo Jorgensen is vowing to contest. There is already political bloodshed and violence in the streets. Don’t wait for the government to come and fix your problems, get to work like your life depends on it.
When in doubt, remember what Marcus Aurelius said, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

Mike Black

Mike Black is an educator and fiction writer out of Phoenix, AZ. He is the author of such novels as Walk on Home and Samurai Blues. In the decade he spent in Japan, he wrote commentary for NagMag and since returning to the states, has written countless articles on the cultural and political playground. You can follow him on Twitter @mikeblackBB.

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