Most of us do not have control over the coronavirus. We lack the power to develop treatments and vaccines. We even have little influence over what governments will do to combat the pandemic. What we have, however, is the power to think and act in ways that will make the suffering bearable, reaffirm our humanity and turn the outcomes positive. If we do not use this power correctly, our anxiety, loss and prejudice can come together and do more damage to our future than what the virus alone could ever have done.
I have spent the past three months writing about the coronavirus pandemic, its geopolitics, the complexity of countering it, what the government should do to fight it, help those hard hit by the lockdown and plan for the recovery. Today I write about preparing ourselves mentally to deal with the pandemic and its consequences.
During the Vietnam War, James Stockdale, a US navy pilot, was taken prisoner-of-war (POW) in 1965 and imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for eight years, much of it in solitary confinement. As the author Jim Collins tells it in Good to Great, Stockdale was tortured “over 20 times…and lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda.”
Writing in 1999-2000, Collins knew that Stockdale survived the ordeal, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1976, led the Naval War College and was Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 US presidential election. But he was struck by “how on earth did (Stockdale) deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?(emphasis in the original)”
We are in a similar situation today. We do not know the end of the coronavirus story. We do not know how long the pandemic will last? How bad will it get, or how much will we suffer? There are even more depressing questions. Amid these uncertainties, Collins’ conversation with Stockdale is worth reporting in full.
Stockdale told Collins that he never lost faith in the end of the story, and that he never doubted not only that he would get out, but also that he would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of his life.
When Collins asked who among the POWs didn’t make it out, Stockdale replied that it was the optimists. A surprised Collins asked him to explain.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
At the end of their conversation, Stockdale said that that was a very important lesson. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Collins calls this the Stockdale Paradox.
Stockdale’s Stoic prism
Stockdale attributed his mental strength and orientation to his readings of Stoic philosophy as a graduate student, especially reading the Enchiridion, the ‘handbook’ of Epictetus. The two foundations of this way of thinking are that much of our unhappiness arises from trying to control what we can’t; and that it is our interpretation of what happens that makes us happy, sad, angry or depressed. In other words, if we train our minds not to make negative judgements, we can protect ourselves (and society) from negative emotions and their consequences. So while it is unwise to rely on optimism, there is a strong case for positive thinking in times of adversity.
The most famous practitioner and exponent of Stoic thinking was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who — incidentally — ruled during a plague epidemic which claimed many of his children before he too died from it. Scholars have found parallels of Stoic thinking in the Gita, the Upanishads and Buddhism. It is not surprising that human wisdom has converged on similar ideas and techniques around the world, because every civilisation went through recurring periods of great adversity.
Eyes on the road
While discussing life in times of crisis a few years ago, a friend gave me a simpler, easily relatable analogy to think about the situation we find ourselves in today. Imagine you are driving and suddenly find yourself in heavy, bumper-to-bumper traffic. If you are unduly optimistic you could end up with angst and despair, not least when you find other drivers idiotically cutting in and making things worse. What should you do? Keep your eyes on the road, drive straight, halt when you need to and start moving again. Whatever might be the cause of the traffic jam, however long it might take to ease off, this is both the correct and the best thing you can do. That’s very good advice, especially if you can use the time to listen to some good music, an audiobook or a podcast along the way.
Nitin Pai is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.