What Would the Stoics Think About the COVID-19 Pandemic?

 Andrew Bondarev ‘22 

Thrown around in many circles and schools of thought, stoicism, and the art of being “stoic” is slowly becoming a buzzword and a marketing tactic in order to encourage buying a new book or to watch a new video. The term is commonly used in today’s society as simply “not caring,” but that can be just as easily confused with thinking of life as meaningless and delving further into nihilism. The short answer is that stoicism, in contrast, encourages the practitioner of the philosophy to acknowledge one’s feelings, to be affected, but not to be harmed by that which we cannot control. To clarify, what we can control is this moment, what is real and in front of us. The aching reality of the present, in which we can think, choose and act in ways that can either honor your intrinsic value or harm your perception of it. This understanding of the topic stems from the ancient writings of Seneca, Epictetus, Rufus, and Aurelius. As we all sit in quarantine, either overthinking about the future or somehow having your life together, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’s words echo on: “Don’t neglect this one day for fantasies in the future, for the future is built off of these days”. 

At this moment, many are dealing with grief and suffering in the world, and these words cannot begin to describe the hardship connected to the pandemic. This is an acute pain that cannot be healed by a magic quote of wisdom or by seizing the day, but this pain can be the root of learning in many ways. At this moment, it is generally understood that escapism will never fulfill the endless void that it decorates, and yet, we still attempt to drown out and numb the suffering. This notion only builds the idea that whether we spend this time well or self-destruct, we will never forget this moment in our lives where the coronavirus impacted our lives and changed everything we operated on. This emotional catharsis of our current state provides ample time for us to reconnect with our dignity and moral identity. Therefore, the genesis of achieving change is demonstrated through our thoughts and what we decide our existence will be. Viktor Frankl, who survived the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, has said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”. 

Despite the uncertainty and paralysis of being isolated at home, we have an opportunity to make the choice to focus on objectivity instead of subjectivity. We have human dignity that is inherent and inviolable, as taught by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is objective. Speaking of the Catholic faith, Jesus Christ suffered on the cross as a sacrifice for our salvation and to illustrate the magnitude of His love for us. Each and every day of our lives, we can choose to sacrifice for our own good, even when it is painful, in order to show love for ourselves. Our decision to honor the faith that our lives have meaning and that we have worth, regardless of our status’ or conditions in life, reveals a new horizon in this spectrum of thought. Hence, one does not require a certain outcome or level of success in order to prove your value, remembering this allows us to accept what has taken place.

Humanity must respond to this adversity by recognizing that as long as you are breathing, you have a chance to forge a new reality for yourself. Small goals and just regularly deciding to believe in your worth as an individual can grant us the balance to combat the chaos of pestilence. St. Paul stated, “We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). It is evident that stoicism should not be altered and manipulated in order to appease a political or religious agenda, but when it comes to being applicable for the modern-day Salesian, we must remind ourselves of certain notions. We have to take the time to use pain to regroup and re-align with our emotional health while remembering our human dignity and the sacrifice necessary to honor that. Fred Rogers, a great empathizer once said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” You matter, and you already have the goodness to stay a human under any circumstances and to not be despondent. Paraphrasing Dostoevsky’s post-death penalty statement, that’s what life is about.