Sarah DeVries
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was a famous practitioner of stoicism. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was a famous practitioner.

During this difficult situation, it might be time for some stoicism

Things are looking bleak but remaining stoic might help

On the recommendation of a friend, I signed up to receive emails each morning from The Daily Stoic, a philosophy blog that offers bits of wisdom from — you guessed it — stoicism.

I’ll be the first to admit that my understanding of it is extremely rudimentary, but from what I can tell, the basic gist of it is this: difficult situations will present themselves, sometimes even lots of extremely difficult ones that come one after the other in rapid succession, and you won’t be able to control them.

But what we can control are our own thoughts, actions, and how we respond to these uncontrollable situations, and when times are good, we can practice and prepare for the bad ones which will most certainly arrive later so that we can meet them with bravery and wisdom.

Furthermore, those bad times and difficult situations are opportunities to bring forth strengths and unique responses that likely would not have manifested themselves otherwise (after all, so much in life is just about context, isn’t it?). They give us the chance to practice those four important virtues: courage, moderation, justice, wisdom.

My sister has a great exercise she told me about that she regularly practices, and it’s something that I try to apply myself (“try” being the key word in that sentence). When she has to deal with someone that’s annoying, rude, or surly, she says to herself, “S/he is my teacher.”

It’s a brilliant reframing of an annoying situation, and while we might not often have the presence of mind to do this when we’re upset, I think it’s a generally excellent habit to build. It’s certainly helped me personally to stay quiet and reflect rather than responding in anger, something that nearly always makes a situation worse.

If we needed a major opportunity to pause and bring forth both our individual and collective strength, it’s certainly arrived.

Times are tense. We only have a vague sense of when this will end, and there are of course no guarantees. Will a coronavirus vaccine work 100%? Will it be so expensive that its existence will be rendered irrelevant because so few will be able to pay for it? What if some doofus not wearing a mask infects me or someone I love? What if, in an unguarded moment, I’m that doofus? How do we talk about the need to balance safety with the mental health needs of those who haven’t touched another human being in months? We’re all on edge, and fights are just too easy to get into these days.

There are hundreds of ways that humans have been putting each other in harm’s way before the pandemic; it’s just that now, doing so is not anonymous or delayed, but rather evident and immediate.

Maybe we speed or just send “one quick text” in our cars, or don’t buckle our children in safely; maybe we take our temperamental dogs for a walk without leashing them; maybe we show up to hang out with our friends even though we’ve for sure got a cold coming on, and fail to do even basic things like washing our hands or refraining from getting to close to others.

The difference now is that the current ways we’re putting each other in danger have wreaked havoc on our entire world social and economic systems, and until we get it under control, none of us are going to be enjoying things like we used to.

In the U.S., confrontations among individuals are fierce, and several major cities have seen their homicide rates significantly rise. I decided to open the article I saw on the topic (it was in the New York Times), expecting to find that domestic violence was to blame. In fact, many of the murders were happening after altercations with strangers.

Like I said, things are tense. (More) violence has popped up in Mexico too, seeming to begin with shocking incidences of panicked residents accusing medical personnel of spreading the virus. Then there was the killing of a man by police for not wearing a mask, along with the predictable follow-up protests and subsequent violence at the hands of likely untrained and underpaid police officers in riot gear. (Seriously, people: give people a costume, and they’ll play the part; it’s just a psychological fact. When can we start dressing the cops like Mr. Rogers?)

The “bad guys,” of course, are also seeing quite a bit of decreased demand as well, increasing their “taxes” on local businesses with predictable consequences for not paying up.

Officials predict — and I think they’re right — that we should expect a significant increase in crimes like robberies and burglaries over the next few months as desperate people who’ve been out of work for too long increasingly do whatever they can to survive. So, you know … something to look forward to.

So what’s the lesson here? For my part, a few things immediately come to mind: 1) economic inequality hurts all of us, and we need to solve it pronto — most crimes don’t happen just because the perpetrators are jerks, but out of the anger and desperation that grows out of societal injustice; 2) those industries and individuals who depend on tourism and foot traffic, once they recover or start anew, will need a Plan B for next time things go south (I’m envisioning a government-matching “rainy day” savings account for each worker to weather the bad times as long as possible); 3) we need a health system that can actually handle more people than normal being sick at once, and a public system that can fold out, cardboard cutout-style, when the need arises. 

Will we solve these issues, or at least get closer to solving them? I’ll admit, things are looking bleak. But I haven’t lost hope.

The poet Rumi said, “… do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

I don’t know what that Side B looks like, but I sure do hope it’s better. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying my best to follow the lead of the stoics.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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