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How to survive like a Stoic in times of corona-virus

Dr Marcel de Roos is a Psychologist PhD from the Netherlands with a private practice in Colombo Sri Lanka.

The current corona-virus pandemic is a source of anxiety for most people. It varies from small annoyances about the scarcity of certain groceries to big worries concerning elderly loved ones with health problems. People are anxious, depressed and they have sleeping issues.

In order to maintain/acquire resilience we can learn a lot from the Stoics. It’s a philosophical school of thought which originated in the third century BC in Ancient Greece. It became popular amongst the Roman Emperors and their administrative elite. A few prominent examples of Stoic thinkers are Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Although I am myself more of an Epicurean, I do believe that the Stoics have something to teach us in times of a crisis.

The core of the Stoic philosophy is the concept of “ta eph’ hemin”, which literarily means “that is up to us”. The only discretion we have is the power to choose our own response. Stoics differentiate between what is within your power and what is not. They propagate that you should only focus on what is in your circle of influence. With the Stoics it’s all about having a good, RATIONAL(!) life.

“Who you are does not depend on your circumstances”, “essentially we are who we are, based upon how we deal with situations”; these are a few typical Stoic sayings. Even if you are in prison, or with a pandemic in quarantine, you still have many choices how you can handle these situations. The fact that we have to be indoors is according to a Stoic objectively speaking not bad. But because we perceive it as awful it nags us and it will disturb our inner balance. Instead of that, we should focus on the things that are within our possibilities: spending more time with your family, start a new hobby or interest, reading books.

Regarding the corona-crisis we should remember that we are not responsible. We didn’t cause it, we are not the foreign political leaders who made mistakes, and we didn’t ask for to be locked up in our houses or be all of a sudden out of work. It’s all very unfair but we can’t change it. What we can do is to learn from this situation, how we can spend our time more meaningful and how we can emerge stronger out of this.

Another core concept from the Stoics is “Ataraxia”, which means imperturbable. It’s important that you take your decisions based upon reliable (news) sources instead of sources that spread fear or anger. The key is to control your emotions and that you can start being productive asap. You don’t have control over news about the duration of a lockdown. But you DO have control over washing your hands, staying at home as much as possible and helping a neighbour in need.

When we are calm and rational, according to the Stoics, we are better equipped to act serving the community. They emphasise that the individual is a part of something bigger. We should do good to others in order to improve the world a bit.

Stoics say that there are four virtues which you have to apply to every situation: courage, discipline, justice and wisdom. Don’t panic, prepare yourself well and stay indoors, help the needy and be rational.

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