Coronavirus Outbreak: Lessons from the philosopher Epictetus, to cope with lockdown-induced helplessness

Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus seems to have known that when things are bad – such as the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown we're living through – we are forced to prioritise. We focus on what we can do, rather than on what we can’t.

Sneha Rajaram April 18, 2020 09:40:01 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Lessons from the philosopher Epictetus, to cope with lockdown-induced helplessness

In the Mahabodhi Lokashanthi Buddha Vihara in Bengaluru, the inner walls of the Vihara hall are lined with paintings of scenes from the Buddha’s life. The three that stand out for me are from the first time Prince Siddhartha leaves his palace to ride out into the city in Kapilavastu: he sees a sick man, an elderly woman, and a dead body. I remember the painting of the sick man especially: he lies abject, naked, on the ground, covered in sores and misery – a sharp contrast to the shocked young prince, well-dressed and healthy, riding in his chariot.

That’s how the Buddha learned the truth that his father – and our culture – tried to mask: that we all must age, fall sick, die. Control is a function of privilege to a large extent, but ultimately an illusion.

Coronavirus Outbreak Lessons from the philosopher Epictetus to cope with lockdowninduced helplessness

Dysfunctionality understands impermanence and flux. It will keep us alive. Rigidity, on the other hand, will kill us. Illustration by Satwik Gade

If you are reading this, you are possibly lucky enough to have a roof over your head and enough food to last you a while. That doesn’t mean you aren’t ill; or overwhelmed by terrifying and monstrous personal and professional problems and worries; or facing discrimination and hatred; or horrified out of your mind at the predicament of our brothers and sisters in this country. For some of you, one of your foremost worries can be your mental health. For some of you, one of your foremost worries has to be your mental health – for instance, because you are forced to live 24x7 with your current or former abuser (assuming you’re not in immediate physical danger). Welcome to the new normal, which feels kind of familiar.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was exiled as a result of his activism during the Vietnamese war, explains in his own way why social responsibility doesn’t mean we have to stay on the news cycle all day long (unless it’s our job):

Someone asked me, “Aren’t you worried about the state of the world?” I allowed myself to breathe and then I said, “What is most important is not to allow your anxiety about what happens in the world to fill your heart. If your heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.”

I want to tell you: whether you’re dully, perennially anxious; whether you’re having panic attacks that rob you of the basic faculties you’ve taken for granted since you were a child; whether you’re wracked by fear that you, your parents, loved ones, or worse, children will die of this disease; whether you’re drowning in rage, despair and horror at the news; whether you’re numbing out, overeating, screaming to blow off steam, glued to your phone, losing your routines, unable to focus on work, not exercising; whether you’re debilitated by depression or frustrated by claustrophobia – it doesn’t matter what your reaction is. I want to tell you: you’re doing it right.

These are signs that you’re human and you’re having a natural reaction. Right now, engaging with this external and internal mess (even by numbing or escaping), being neck-deep in this soup, in the thick of things? That’s how we get through this.

Dysfunctionality understands impermanence and flux. It will keep us alive. Rigidity, on the other hand, will kill us.

This is how survival mode works in immediate, traumatic times. Some day, if we’re lucky, we will move beyond this mode and rethink these coping mechanisms. But right now the rule is: whatever works.

So yes, there is no wrong reaction to this situation. But if you happen to be seeking wisdom and guidance, Epictetus might be for you. He was an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher and former slave whose no-nonsense, concise prescriptions are summarised in a handbook called the Enchiridion, among other compilations of his discourses. If I was in a very tight spot, I believe I would focus on the Buddha’s core teachings and on the first paragraph of the Enchiridion:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

It is never pleasant when lessons are forced on us and we have to sink or swim. I suppose Epictetus, having been a child slave and disabled, knew that. He seems to have known that when things are bad we are forced to prioritise, as every depressed person figures out. We focus on what we can do, rather than on what we can’t.

Strictly following this rule of Epictetus, then, the one thing that really is in our power is exploring the way we relate to ourselves – our thoughts, our feelings, our bodies. Assuming that this is a pursuit that interests us, I would say now, more than ever, gentleness is called for. The atmosphere between us and our selves needn’t be all tropical thunderstorms and charging rhinos, or even unbending brick walls. There is absolutely no real reason to judge ourselves harshly, tough-talk ourselves into a shame spiral, or decide we have to be perfect strongwomen. And so many of us do this so unconsciously that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. This is a good time to explore that relationship with ourselves if we have the headspace for it. Easier said than done, but we might be amazed at the far-reaching effects of a little mild-mannered pragmatism and tone modulation while approaching ourselves. One catches far more flies with honey than with vinegar.

As for the coronavirus pandemic, and what this ill-planned, ill-conceived lockdown has done to the poor of our country, and the escalating Islamophobia all around us – we don’t know what the near future holds. If we are not struggling with these problems ourselves, perhaps we can again focus on what we can do: maybe donate money, raise funds, raise awareness, deliver rations, speak out against injustice, help in a professional capacity, and – this is important too – bear witness and remember, as Aamir Aziz stresses in his powerful poem:

Sab yaad rakha jaayega,
Sab kuchh yaad rakha jaayega.
Everything will be remembered,
All of it will be remembered.

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