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A stoic response to coronavirus

| Wednesday, March 18, 2020

It is quite an understatement to say these are unusual circumstances. The university’s shift to online courses due to the spread of COVID-19 is uncharted territory. Nearly all students have been sent home, courses are being revised and everyone is simply trying to gain a grasp of the situation. Internet access, time zone changes and a myriad of other problems are the obstacles students and faculty will face in the coming weeks. At the same time, there is worry about the coronavirus and the threat it poses to the global health system, world economy and personal lives. Public venues are shutting down, events are being cancelled and the vast loss of labor brings to question the world’s stability during this pandemic. In these interesting times, one must remember to remain steadfast and hope for a better future, while working together to protect the community. 

It is quite easy to fall into fear and panic about this situation. The vast misinformation about the virus makes any individual susceptible to a slew of false facts that can instigate anxiety, fear and horror. Even without misinformation, a lack of testing kits and unclear public information means it is natural for one to worry that anyone can have the virus without realizing it. This makes going out in public more dangerous, as one does not know who could infect others. 

However, while this may promote an atmosphere of hysteria, there is a way to live life peacefully during the coronavirus epidemic. For a class, I have spent the past week practicing and reflecting on the ideals of Stoicism, a philosophy that emphasizes logic and self-control as guiding points for one’s life. The experience eased my worries and provided a greater sense of control over my personal ability to prevent catching the disease. I would like to share some aspects of the Stoic lifestyle in the hope that it can provide a calming atmosphere in these uncertain times. 

Stoicism concerns the physics, logic and ethics of the world. As a rudimentary explanation, physics concerns the physical state of the world, logic is the rationalization of worldly events, and ethics guides individuals on living a worthwhile life. Consider the physical nature of the coronavirus. This requires an evaluation of the facts at hand. According to the CDC, the chance of becoming ill from the virus is extremely low for most people. The real danger is for older adults and individuals with underlying health conditions. However, the virus is easily spread. Thus, individuals should be wary of becoming carriers and potentially harming these populations. There is no vaccine for the virus, emphasizing the need to reduce its spread. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. More information about coronavirus can be found at the CDC and other health agencies. This is simply a basic explanation of the virus. 

Now that the facts have been explained, one should apply them towards a rational response to coronavirus. Given the current information, there is not a reason to panic about this situation. People should not be hoarding supplies, and the current circumstances do not warrant the racism and prejudice certain groups are experiencing. The chances of contracting the virus is low, and even if one is sick, most people are safe. Instead of the current worry, people must calm down. A key principle of Stoicism is adhering to rationality and avoiding acting on one’s emotions. Fear and panic would only lead to irrational actions that only exacerbate the danger of the current situation. There is not enough evidence to justify mass panic and confusion. Thus, people should avoid becoming overly worried. 

However, people should be cautious. The virus still does pose a threat to the population, and individuals should respond in a fashion that mitigates the chances of contracting coronavirus. This means washing hands, avoiding exposure to large crowds and public places and other measures recommended by the CDC. Practicing healthy habits falls into the ethics of Stoicism. Stoics are obligated to care for fellow humans, as we are all part of the same world. Stoics are concerned with the wellbeing of those around them, seeking to preserve the peace and serenity of life. Therefore, out of compassion for others and oneself, individuals should follow the guidelines to avoid infection. If one becomes sick, he should enter quarantine to prevent harming others. Although this may be difficult, adopting the Stoic mindset of caring for others makes these efforts brave and worthwhile. 

Many of the above statement seem obvious and have been restated by news outlets for several weeks. However, adopting the Stoic mindset brings a new dimension to this information. Stoicism sets aside the irrational response of one’s emotions, emphasizing the need to be rational creatures in the face of adversity. It requires moving beyond one’s selfish desires and realizing an individual’s place in the broader scheme of the universe. One must not worry, but focus on acting rationally in a seemingly irrational world. Each person plays an important role in the peace and prosperity of nature. At the same time, one must practice the dichotomy of control, the recognition of what one can and cannot control. One cannot control how the masses will respond to this crisis, but one can control his own chances of contracting coronavirus. Therefore, one should focus on practicing healthy habits for himself, rather than worrying about how every other individual is acting. While some precaution for others is necessary, one person cannot control everyone else in the world. There is nothing to gain from worrying about what one cannot control. 

The Stoics had to deal with their own plagues and pandemics. Marcus Aurelius, a prominent Stoic and Roman emperor, lived through the Antonine Plague that killed 60 to 70 million Romans. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his Stoic philosophy, composing his “Meditations” to guide his Stoic practices. As an opportunity for reflection, I will leave you with some key excerpts that can provide calm and solace as the world tackles coronavirus. 

“Nowhere you can go is more peaceful – more free of interruptions – than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquility. And by tranquility I mean a kind of harmony.”

“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.”

Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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