I went walking in the park today. One of the only remaining safe spaces. The sun was out and the sky was glorious blue. While watching the magnificent pink and white blooms on the magnolia tree in one of the gardens, it is easy to disengage from the ongoing barrage of distressing news.
As we move towards full self-isolation, which will inevitably lead to an increase in the continuous consumption of stressful news, it may be useful to remember the words of Epictetus, a Roman philosopher with a remarkable life story. Beginning his life as a slave, he studied stoic philosophy, won his freedom, and eventually ran his own philosophy school. He was a well known orator and the Roman emperor Hadrian was among his friends. Despite his humble background, Epictetus achieved all of these while being crippled, either from childhood, or as a punishment from his master.
Epictetus taught that the secret to being happy in life is simple: do not let the things that we do not control impact our emotions. He then proceeded to examine what we actually control in our lives. The conclusion is that besides our own thoughts and attitudes, all feelings of control we have are an illusion.
The anxiety people feel is palpable. Anyone still walking in the street can see it on the faces of other pedestrians. A large portion of this anxiety stems from the uncertainty we all face. We just don’t know enough about the virus, its impact, the prognosis, and what is the best way to manage our response. This is where the advice of Epictetus comes in. There is only that much we can control. We can manage our hand-washing habit. We can decide how much we want to self-isolate, and how much we may want to venture out. We definitely cannot control the response of the authorities in the country we are in. We cannot control the rate of the spread of pandemic in our area. To incessantly watch the news for every new piece of information, every updated statistics, causes much more stress than an actual increase in our knowledge and coping ability.
To manage this situation we need to do two things: follow the instructions describing the measures we can take ourselves to reduce the chances we may get ill, and make space for ourselves. Airline safety instructions always emphasise that if the oxygen masks fall down from the bulkheads above, we must first fit the mask on our own face before helping others. The situation is the same here. If we allow ourselves to give in to panic we become useless to ourselves, and to everyone else around us.
Take the time to make space. Spend some time every day doing something that nourishes you. Read a book you love. Play a musical instrument. Cook. Watch a recording of an old sporting match. Whatever it is you choose to do, create the space between the endless barrage of bad news, and the natural panic cycle this creates in our psyche. The wider the space you carve out for yourself, the better your attitude will be, both with regards to your own prospects, and the positive influence you can bear on those around you.