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What we can learn from the past - stoicism in a pandemic.

Updated: May 6, 2020

I had started to read more about stoicism and the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, even before the COVID19 pandemic changed all our lives so dramatically, but articles, videos and books have been popping up more and more lately and seeping further into my consciousness to the point where I thought I'd write a blog entry with some thoughts about it.

I have included a recent article in The Guardian about what we can learn from Marcus Aurelius, one of the last and most famous Stoic philosophers and also who governed the Roman Empire during a pandemic that killed an estimated 5 million people.

For me, the advice that Marcus Aurelius gives for living a better life and dealing with tough times really rings true to my own experiences and in the last month I've used some of this to help cope mentally with the side effects of the pandemic.

One of the key precepts is about understanding what you can and can't control, and focusing on the former and not stressing out about the latter. This can be hard, but I have found that it is absolutely essential. For instance, social media platforms such as Facebook can batter you with wave after wave of bad news, half truths and an endless number of things that you are urged to worry about. You have not only your own anxieties at the ongoing pandemic situation to worry about, but also the anxieties of all the people on your newsfeed, some who seem to be totally freaking out. You can end up feeling overwhelmed by it all. Feelings of stress, according to a psychological research, often come from the feeling of a lack of control, an inability to control events around you. What stoicism teaches you is to recognise that many of these things you can't influence or control - you are one person, you can't solve all the problems of the world. So let them go. This means you can focus your energy and time on things that you CAN control, and be more effective at achieving positive change.

I see friends writing highly agitated posts about people travelling to do "non-essential activities" or not staying home when they should ( #staythefuckathome ). I understand this anxiety, but you can't control what these people can do, all you can do is do what you can to protect both yourself and others through YOUR behaviour.

There have been many times in my life when I have felt disappointed, upset or let down by other people for not meeting my standards or not doing things they had promised. I'm sure we've all experienced it. I felt frustrated and angry about this and I've thought many times about how I can avoid it in the future. I've learnt that you can't always control the way other people do, whether they're selfish, self-centred or lazy. So what can you control ? You can control your response and your behaviour towards them. Sometimes it seems we'd rather just get angry and complain rather than do something about it. We can certainly protect ourselves from the toxic outcomes of others' behaviour or not indulge them or allow ourselves to be bullied. These are things we can control with ourselves.

When I've analysed things this way, I've realised that at times I have failed to be assertive enough, not be clear enough with someone or gave someone a pass because I wanted to avoid conflict. Would it have changed things ? Maybe not. But then that would be because of things I couldn't control, like X being a narcissistic arsehole.

So if you are feeling stressed and anxious from isolation or just the high anxiety of getting sick or the myriad of financial and social issues this pandemic has raised, have a look further into Stoicism. I've included a few videos which explain it further below.

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