How To Survive A Pandemic and How Marcus Aurelius Can Help

Get active in your own rescue by working explicitly with what is within your control.

Marcus Aurelius, the force that saw Rome through a plague, put some weight in this sentence when he said, “Bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before, and will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. Produce them in your mind, as you know them from experience or from history: the court of Hadrian, of Antoninus. The courts of Philip, Alexander, Croesus. All just the same. Only the people different.”

The pestilence of his time crossed over borders and oceans, perplexing the doctors and bringing travel to a halt, ambles perched atop a secluded peak like the distant memory it had become. Mass gatherings became spaces of panic, and altogether stopped happening. Economies bowed down to the Antonine plague as the smell of death stenched the air with more than five million laid to waste in the Roman streets. Despite all the hurdles of governance, Marcus saw himself persevere in spirit till the very end, reminding himself daily through Meditations to put into practice the stoic philosophies that saw him through the plague. “There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control,” he said.

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The same idea was conveyed by Epictetus, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own.”

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius

There has always been a stream of unfortunate events lined up like one ant behind another, ready to pick up where the other left off. Nauseatingly familiar patterns of pandemics have come before the Coronavirus: from the 1918 Spanish flu to the SARS of 2003, H1N1 influenza of 2009, and the conspicuous Black Death. Presently in Kenya, if it’s not a 40km by 60km nimbus cloud of locust eating its way through fields of desperate hope, it’s a mandrake of gushing water-fueled with vengeful fury burying the land, and bodies with it. If the two don’t muddy your marble floors, maybe the toxic insult that lies inside the minuscule Nairobi fly or the latest tsar bomba like pathogen, making its way through the lungs of economies, and minds of the people, all around the world will do it. Sinking islands and sinking hearts paint themselves as daily men, now no longer an impinging surprise but a miasmic expected reality. Life as a Kenyan, on a natural scale, feels like a grain of sand dissolving inside a stream of fiery lava.

The dichotomy of control teaches us that what happens to us might not be within our control, but how we respond to it is. How we think, perceive, and choose to act is up to us. How others do the same is not. The base of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) lies in this psychological principle of stoicism. The doctors will do their part no matter how many strands of hair we pull out of our heads. The Coronavirus pales in comparison to the disease in our minds that scratches to the depths of our brains, splitting it open to reveal an electric maze of fear, anxiety, and depression. Let the lock-down in our minds be the first restriction to be lifted.

It is important to remember that it is not the disease itself that is so dangerous as the perceptions we form about the disease. Covid-19 is not a curse. It is not the fear of the taxi man who does not wash his hands or the store attendant who does not wear a mask that impales us; rather, it’s the fear that they will infect us that breeds the contempt towards others, even those who have recovered from the virus.

“An infected mind is a far more dangerous pestilence than any plague— one only threatens your life, the other destroys your character.”

— Meditations 9.2.1, Marcus Aurelius

Of what use is worrying about the journey of the fifty shillings note in your hands if they smile with 60% alcoholic sanitizer? Can you control the path the note takes before it reaches you? Will you beat your chest, threaten and force another who is neither within your constant sight nor control to act as they should in this critical time?  Most things don’t happen as we wish them to; otherwise, there would not even be a pandemic to fight or ignorant people to accuse of wrongdoing.

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you. – Victor Frankl in Man’s Search For Meaning

Related: How To Find A Meaning in Life- Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. Going out? Wear a mask. Touching something? Wear gloves. Don’t have gloves? Sanitize. Going back inside the house? Wash your hands. Nose feeling itchy? Sanitize then scratch. Feel a cough coming? Block it with your elbow. Woke up with a fever? Consult a physician before declaring that you are dying. Have Coronavirus? Trust the statistics: most people that contract the disease also recover from it. Someone you know dies of the virus? Remind yourself of the time when Socrates’ student Xenophon was told that his son had been killed in a battle where he calmly replied: “I knew that he was mortal.” It is inexcusable to throw personal responsibility out the window and pin the outcome of negligent actions on anyone but yourself. 

“Is a world without pain possible? Then don’t ask for the impossible.” Let the serenity prayer act as a mantra for you if need be: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”

—Marcus Aurelius

Our greatest resource is our own discipline, an internal well from where we should quench the flames of worry. Let not your mind look like a battlefield boneyard, for the ground the bones lay is the very same which they decay. Be your own Churchill during the Blitz, and carry with you an Aurelius spirit through the times of tragedy. Providence plays its part as it will without you knowing the direction it will take at any second of the day. You too should play your part to keep yourself safe by staying on top of that which you can control, e.g., washing your hands, wearing a mask -and free your mind by continually being aware of your assumptions and perceptions of reality. We live at the mercy of things beyond our control, but what we control is ingrained in those very same things; our reaction to their disruption. Pray if you like, but don’t leave your hygiene to God for even he helps those who help themselves.

Marcus stated that he was fortunate to have known Apollonius of Chalcedon; a man that taught him how to act decisively, guided by reason, while not fretting about potentially corrosive external factors outside of his direct control. Be mindful of how you react to the circumstances you face in your daily life –most of which are out of our direct control. Stick to the facts over which you have direct control over. We are not boxed in the corner of the pandemic ring, we are the boxers in that corner, and it is our individual duty to do what we must for as long as we can.

Emily Troyer, MD, of the University of California San Diego, together with her psychiatrists colleagues predict that we facing a crashing wave of neuropsychiatric sequelae of COVID-19. It is because of such data that we must employ certain stoic principles to see us through. Exemplify the virtues of historical figures like Marcus by reading and putting into practice the life-saving principles found in the books; Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Discourses by Epictetus, to form the mental resilience needed to not only survive but also thrive amidst this trying time.

Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

Marcus Aurelius – The real deal

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