As I discussed in my previous piece, the ancient Stoics have much to teach us in the middle of this crisis. Acceptance is one of their most important lessons.
As Epictetus put it: “Some things are up to us, and some are not up to us.” There are also things, as Irvine points out, over which we have partial control. Epictetus, who was born a slave and was also disabled, said that it is foolish to spend our time thinking and worrying about things we cannot control, and we should accept them with calm. Nevertheless, we are responsible for our actions.
COVID-19, as a pandemic, is entirely out of our control. Unless we are leading the response to the virus, we cannot dictate how others will behave or what the state’s position is regarding this crisis. Even those leading this pandemic cannot control it, and there is no use imagining we can control much because we cannot.
Distinguishing between what we can control and what we cannot is a powerful lesson. This crisis, however, makes the distinction clear and simple.
For situations over which we only have partial control, we can set internal rather than external goals: what we are going to do rather than the precise outcome. We can also control how we will react. How we will come out of this situation professionally and personally is under our partial control. Therefore, we can set internal goals, such as having a routine and achieving the goals we set for ourselves.
These days, if we are parents, our objectives may be nothing more than getting through homeschooling and the work we need to do in a day as best as we possibly can. For our companies, this is the time to protect them and ensure they can weather the storm while doing well by those around us.
Another point that the Stoics make is to have a fatalistic attitude to life, both past and present. When an event occurs, we should learn to accept the decrees of the Fates. The ancients believed that three goddesses called the Fates determined life. Irvine describes their roles: “Clotho wove life, Lachesis measured it, and Atropos cut it.” Stoics advocated accepting and even embracing life as the Fates decreed it, but they were not fatalistic about the future, which they tried to improve as much as they possibly could.
I find it strangely comforting in these times, and in a way, it makes it easier for me to accept, that the Ancient Fates are in charge of this and that I need to adapt in the best way possible to this crisis. What if I were not only to accept it but to, in fact, embrace it? In my case, I would start by being grateful for the extra time I have with my family, time that I would never have had otherwise, and I would go on from there to be thankful for time to reflect.
This crisis has a way of revealing truths that we may not have noticed otherwise, and for that, I am also grateful. Because it forced us to work remotely almost with no notice in my case, it is showing me in stark ways what works and what doesn’t work in my company. If I listen carefully and take the time to explore, our company will come out much more stronger in the end.
As hard as it may be to imagine now, this situation is also impermanent. At some point, we will have a cure and a vaccine. We will be able to go out and travel again, and we will meet new people. Though battered, we will come out of this. If we take advantage of this situation, we may come out better, more resilient people.
Irvine, William, B. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. First Edition. Oxford University Press, November 4, 2008. E-book.