The Ongoing Pandemic: Illness, Anxiety, Anger and “The View from Above”

Newport Beach, California

 By Dr. Norris Frederick

Since I wrote my post in early May, “Philosophy for the Pandemic: Stoicism”, the epidemiologists’ warnings about what could happen when stay-at-home restrictions were relaxed have come true:  the rate of infections, number of cases, and number of hospitalizations have skyrocketed in the U.S., particularly in states in the Southern part of the country.  Deaths now follow several weeks behind infections and hospitalizations, so deaths very well could be spiking soon.

There’s a great deal of anxiety among many groups of people.  Not only those over 60 and/or those who have complicating illnesses — who are most likely to become seriously ill and die — but also among an already anxious group of university students, parents of K-12 students, and many people who are out of work or who fear the loss of their jobs, businesses, and homes.  Add to this the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Hispanics and African-Americans, and the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests for Black Lives Matters, and we are living in extraordinarily turbulent times.  There is a fear specifically of this virus, which also has triggered a generalized anxiety about survival, death and the meaningfulness of our lives.

Fear, anxiety and restrictions on what one may do has in turn led to recurring anger.  One group assembles without masks, some people carrying large rifles, to protest what they say are violations of their freedoms in the bill of rights.  “No governor can force me to wear a mask!  People have the right to choose.”

A second group is very angry at the first and those who continue to endanger others by not wearing masks in places such as grocery stores.  “They are so selfish!  And so stupid!”

Yet another group may be ignoring CDC advice about preventing the virus because they “just want to have fun.”  Despite warnings from the California governor that “the virus does not take the weekend off,” beach-goers pack an Orange County beach in the photo above.  That type of behavior has sparked a rapid increase in the pandemic in the U.S. The chart below shows the startling difference between the U.S. and other developed-nation democracies.

Chart by The New York Times July 28, 2020 | Source: Johns Hopkins University

According to Johns Hopkins University, in the U.S. the positive rate for infections bottomed out in early June at about 4.4% of those tested.  Since then it has steadily increased until now when it is 8.5%, and it’s much higher in some places:  Arizona is 23.6%, Florida is 18.7%.[1]

A large part of the difference between the U.S. and Europe is explained by our lack of effective leadership at both the national and state levels.  In Georgia, where infection rates are about 15%, the governor is spending his energy telling the mayors they don’t have the power to order their cities’ citizens to wear masks.  But leadership is not the only factor, as no matter what the governor of California and the regulations say, people often ignore social distancing at the beaches.

There is good reason for the fear and anxiety, and one can understand the anger.

Desire, Freedom, and Stoicism

 Where’s the hope in this?  It centers on the Stoic idea about what’s up to us and what’s not up to us.  What’s up to us are our judgment, will, effort, and desires.  As Julie Swann, a NC state professor and former CDC researcher says, “Everything for the future will depend on what people do.”[2]  If enough people will wear masks, wash their hands frequently, and observe social distance, the infection rate will proceed slowly enough that hospitals will not be overrun with sick patients, and we get closer to a time with better treatments and a vaccination.  But with only 10% of the U.S. having been infected so far, the coronavirus is here with us for many more months.  We can’t control the outcome, but we can control what we do.

Just as all those folks at beaches, bars and even large family gatherings are driven by the desire for sun and fun and social connection,  many elected officials are driven by desire, in their desire to cater to the desires of their supporters in order to get re-elected.  The Stoic would point out that the desires get reinforced by irrational beliefs (“I MUST get out on the beach, now,” “I MUST please others and maintain power”).

However, as the Stoic philosopher, military general and emperor Marcus Aurelius writes in The Meditations, “the jerks on the leading strings of desire are also felt by wild beasts.”[3] Surely, he says, we are different from wild animals as we can be led by our reason.  The book is better titled To Himself, as it is a journal in which he examines himself as he works to practice the Stoic life.  As a military and political leader, he sought not to enrich himself and his family, but to serve reason and the good of the whole. Our desires are up to us, but far too often – reinforced by culture — we think and act as if we have no control over our desires.

Advertising and social media influencers tell us that freedom is acting on our desires: “Just Do It!” “Quench that Thirst!”  “Buy This, Be Popular, and Have Fun!”  Contrary to the view that freedom means acting on my desires, the Stoic maintains that freedom is the ability to use our reason, to rise above unhealthy desires, even when they are strongest.

When we think about freedom and the question of “Am I free?”, it’s helpful to go within the question and ask, “What is the ‘I’”?   The Stoic answer is that “I” am my rational mind, my soul, not my desires nor my body.

To help us become more free,  the Stoics offer various spiritual exercises as “therapy of the soul.”[4]  One practice is to keep a daily journal where you examine your actions and thoughts, as did Aurelius, and note when you are living according to reason, and when you fail to do so.  Another exercise, and one of the most powerful, is “the view from above.”

The View from Above

“Nighttime panorama looking north across Pakistan’s Indus River valley….The winding border between Pakistan and India is lit by security lights that have a distinct orange tone.” – NASA [5]

Imagine that you have the power to ascend high into the sky to look down on earth.  From that view so many human activities appear ridiculous and irrational.   From that distance your desires, your “musts,”  and your pride — in your reasonably good looks for your age, your possessions, the praising comments from others, and all your charming personality traits –seem totally insignificant.  Even your anxiety and anger in these pandemic times seem a lot less significant.   If building borders between countries and waging war over them, vividly illustrated by the NASA photo above, is irrational, what about the anger you harbor toward your fellow citizens?

You are probably saying, “Now THIS is cheerful, just what I needed in the midst of the pandemic, to be told I am insignificant!  Thanks a lot!”  But there is a freedom and even a power that comes from this spiritual exercise. It helps you see that this desire you have right now (“I MUST be liked,” “I MUST socialize with my friends”) is in the larger scheme of things just not that important.  The view from above helps distance you and detach you from your current desires, and thus helps to free you from those desires, to put them into the larger picture.  This spiritual exercise helps you to realize your judgments are in your control.

If you practice the view from above, keep a journal, and perhaps do other spiritual exercises regularly, you may find that your original belief, “I can’t control how I feel,” turns out to be false.  In fact, as you realize you can learn to choose your reaction to both harmful and helpful feelings, you experience a centered-ness and calmness.  You move more toward the Stoic ideal of being a person who lives with equanimity, in accord with nature, and does his or her best to do the duties to be good and helpful world-citizens.  This calmness both leads to and is a product of good judgments.

For the Stoic, this calm does not rule out all feelings — some feelings in accord with nature and reason are healthy, such as love for family, friends, and even all mankind.  The Stoic is mindful of the larger whole.  Meaningfulness is found in being a part of something larger than yourself.

There is a power in knowing that you and your feelings and desires are not at the center of the universe.  Imagining you have the power to ascend high into the sky corresponds to your actual power of reason, if you will develop it.  You can experience this power and this calm as you practice this spiritual exercise. As Hadot writes, the “I” experiences both “its puniness, as it sees its … individuality lost in the infinity of space and time,” and also “its greatness, as it experiences its power to embrace the totality of things.”[6]

Embracing the totality of things means embracing others, who seen from a distance are at least partly the results of chains of causes – parents, heredity, wealth, education, environment – as each of us is also at least partly the result of such causal chains.  As we come to understand this, we come to feel, says Aurelius, “no resentment against anyone,”[7] and indeed to love humankind.  When we see a person who does not wear a mask in these coronavirus times, we may follow Aurelius’ advice on how to instruct the other person, “not chiding him and making him feel that we are putting up with him, but with frankness and goodness,…with gentleness, without irony, not reproachfully but with affection, with a heart exempt from bitterness – … nor in order to be admired by some bystander, but truly person to person.”[8]

Seen from the distance provided by the view from above or perhaps from the view of a lifetime or even all of human history,  the Stoic helps us see that this pandemic, our anxiety, and our anger, are part of a much larger picture, so very much of which is beyond our control.  However, our judgment, will, effort, and desires are in our control.

Few of us will achieve the lofty, almost godlike, equanimity of which Aurelius writes, but maybe, just maybe, we can do a little better with our anxiety, our anger, our fears and our desires, and we can help heal the deep divisions with others and play our part in helping end this 

pandemic.

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[1] As of July 20, 2020.

[2] Charlotte Observer, July 21, 2020.

[3]  Aurelius, The Meditations, translated by G.M.A. Grube, book III, section 16, (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1983).

[4] Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? translated by Michael Chase, 217, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).

[5] http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/SearchPhotos/photo.pl?mission=ISS045&roll=E&frame=27869

[6] Hadot, 205.

[7] Aurelius, III. 16

[8] Aurelius, XI, 13, and XI, 18, as quoted by Hadot, 219.

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Ike Casey
Ike Casey
2 months ago

What a comforting blog. I have come to realize that I can control my feelings and reactions. I like the idea of taking a view from above. When I meditate, I try to think of myself soaring above my world and seeing things below for what they really are. This is the first time I have had someone write about it.

I hope a lot of people will take the time to read this. It is very worth the time and effort.

Bruce Emery
Bruce Emery
2 months ago

I’m afraid that we cannot prevent our feelings and prejudices from welling up within us as a first response to the world, i. e., short circuit the amygdalae. But we can absolutely either (1) prevent those horses from leaving the barn, or failing that, (2) head them off at the pass. It’s our unshakable responsibility. Thanks, Norris.

Gary Hudson
Gary Hudson
2 months ago

Thank you for your thoughtful words and shared insights of the Stoics. Given what day it is, I find myself hearing the words of John Lewis — get in the way, get into good and necessary trouble. Agitate non – violently, but agitate. What do the Stoic philosophers say about such matters? Hope you are doing well. Take care.

John Clark
John Clark
2 months ago

Another thoughtful and timely post. Thanks, Norris. As you note from the illness all around us comes ‘Anxiety and Anger’ – our limbic world. There is another ‘A’ word of emotion, a pleasurable one, that has been wounded from this illness. It is ‘anticipation.’

The pandemic has in several ways disrupted our anticipation of pleasurable or meaningful events. Although opportunities have improved somewhat, there is uncertainty about getting with family and friends. There is no opportunity of anticipation of attending live music, theater, dance, and museums as we used to. No anticipation of meeting with a group of friends at restaurants and other venues. The anticipation of searching for a lover is severely diminished.

One anticipation of pleasure in my life is still alive and healthy. That anticipation is meeting Norris for our weekly tennis match. Norris, with his stoic control, plays with a perfect coordination of the limbic and cerebral cortex. I play mostly from the limbic system which often means my swing sends the ball into the net or beyond the base line or outside the sidelines. But a pleasure it is. Moving, sweating bodies are a heavenly respite from the ordinary challenges of our time.

Maybe I’ll try to integrate the Aurelius’ journal into my psyche and possibly make the Stoic Professor Frederick work a little harder on the courts.

Thanks again and onward . . . John

Virginia Thornburg
Virginia Thornburg
2 months ago

Another remarkable post Norris. After reading the comments from others I think I relate most to John Clark’s response regarding the missing anticipation of so many previously normal events and the actual engaging with others. That’s really the hard part, for me anyway. I shall strive to be more stoic and rise above it all. I really would love to see your tennis matches 😊. Someday.

Katharine R Meacham
Katharine R Meacham
2 months ago

Norris-YES!! Marcus Aurelius is a good model for the journaling (although he did… uh…. kill quite a few folks ….)-and when seen in light of Epictetus -the Stoic enslaved person-it helps to illuminate the Stoic ideal above the foibles of the flawed human beings who espoused it!!

Barry
Barry
2 months ago

Norris, thanks for another thoughtful and encouraging post!

Jack Pfitsch
Jack Pfitsch
2 months ago

I too have been waiting with anticipation for your exposition on calmness in these troubling times. I hope to hear more in Part 2. Recently, I hit upon the idea that calmness is a meta-emotion. Meaning it is an emotion or reaction to a strong feeling. It is not a rejection of the feeling rather it holds the feeling and honors its presence letting it follow its own path. This seems a useful meta-emotion because many of our strong feelings are self-defeating, such as the desire to win a tennis point.

I wonder if you can comment on the varieties of causes larger than ourselves that people use for motivation. For example, the Nazis and Fascists identified strongly with the nation state. Also the view from above leads to interesting calculations concerning the efficacy or utility of our responses. How did the Stoics anticipate Pragmatism for example. I like Marcus’s description of effective humane response. But does it work?

Under COVID we are faced with numerous fine distinctions of how we can best cooperate. Many of our decisions seem to tread a fine line between conformity and breach.

I’m anticipating that more discussion like what you are doing will be a great help.

Scott Killgore
Scott Killgore
2 months ago

Norris, another thoughtful post and we certainly need more “thoughtfulness” these days. Thank you. As I’ve worked with parishioners and students through the years, I’ve suggested they consider something similar to the “view from above” – similar in type, anyway. I suggest they consider the question, “How long will it last?” It is a question that can move us into the realm of significance, similar to the “view from above,” although it pertains more to our decisions and actions, rather than our own significance or lack thereof. What will the likely result of my decision or action be and how long will it last? Of course, one would hope that we desire good results instead of bad ones, and most of the time we will want a good result to last. Sadly, as we see much too frequently these days, short-sighted decisions and actions often lead to negative long-term results. Whether from sacred texts or from Stoic thinkers and writers, all of us would benefit from wisdom that is beyond what we ourselves possess. If we seek such wisdom, then we are more likely to make better decisions and take better actions – that last.

Gary Boyd
Gary Boyd
2 months ago

Norris, just wanted to say that I appreciate this series on the Stoics…I think it was after your May blog that I picked up The Manual, Epictetus and have found it to be a nice way to promote meditations and subsequent journal entries during this viral time. There have been *so many* strange and dismal events in 2020 that it has become almost laughable and such readings along with validations of personal thoughts it brings has been an excellent method for maintaining a positive perspective. Hope things continue to be well with you and yours.

Rebecca Whitener Talton
Rebecca Whitener Talton
1 month ago

Norris, Thanks again for another wonderful essay that is both thought-provoking and timely. I have always found a cathartic relief in keeping a journal. Now when I read my journal entries over so many years, I often chuckle over how the events and emotions that felt significant at the time seem so insignificant now. I am hopeful that one day I will be able to read my 2020 Journal entries about the world during Covid and find peace in that all the conflicts, uncertainty and apprehension of these days have been eventually resolved. Sending my best wishes to you and your family.

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