Even with a vaccine there are still many unknowns. We have no idea how effective it will be against new strains or how often it will need to be administered. According to David Nabarro from the WHO and Harvard epidemiologist Mark Lipsitch, it’s likely that COVID-19 will behave in a manner similar to the seasonal flu, which comes and goes throughout the year and requires an annual vaccine. Even then we probably won’t get rid of the virus completely. Instead, we’ll devise treatments and preventions and learn to live with it similar to the way we have HIV.
All of this chaos and uncertainty is enough to drive even the most stable person batty. However, we can take some solace in knowing that we are not the first people in history to have faced these dilemmas. Humans have been dealing with pandemics and natural disasters since we’ve been on the planet.
The difference is that today we have science and modern medicine to help us solve these problems. But to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for the stresses we are facing, we can turn to the wisdom of ancient philosophies.
Stoicism is a 2,000-year-old Greek philosophy that advocates rational thinking, and focusing on what you are in control of in the world, your thoughts and actions. The Stoics practice an exercise called Premeditatio Malorum. Loosely translated this means “Think About Evil.”
Likewise, the first noble truth of Buddhism is “Life is Suffering”. While these ideas may sound negative to adherents of positive thinking, a 2013 study by Sophia Chou, an organisational psychology researcher at the National Taiwan University supports the idea that adapting an attitude of “Realistic Optimism” is the best approach for obtaining happiness and achieving goals in life. Realistic optimists also had a clearer view of the world and demonstrated better self-control.
These reflect the adage “Hope for the best but plan for the worst.”
The Flaw in Positive Thinking
Some people might tell you to “Just be positive” and everything will be okay. A few years ago, a book called The Secret, based on Wallace D. Wattles’ 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich, popularised the Law of Attraction. Despite the title, none of what the author advocated was grounded in science. The basic thesis was that everything you have in your life, good or bad, you attracted by the positivity or negativity of your thoughts. While there is value in positive thinking, only being positive can be naïve, and at its worst, toxic. Life isn’t always puppy dogs, rainbows and unicorns, and if that is your expectation based on this philosophy you will be sorely disappointed in your life.
Putting It Into Practice
Train your mind to adapt to a realistic optimistic point of view by visualising your goals, whether it’s your business returning to normal, starting a new business, getting a job, or just losing a few pounds. Then, according to the Stoics, you should visualise three things; potential daily inconveniences; loss; and major setbacks along the path to your goals.
By visualising daily inconveniences, you are preparing yourself to work hard and preserve despite difficulties. By visualizing loss and major setbacks, you are forcing your mind to recognise that things could be much worse than they are which will make you feel grateful for the things you have, whether it’s your health, food to eat, good friends, or simply a roof over your head.
While the world may seem turned upside down right now, if history has anything to teach us it’s that human-beings are resilient, adaptable, creative problem solvers and thinkers. In the same way that philosophy balances the positive with the negative, sustainability balances human needs with those of nature.
We will find a vaccine, and if we aren’t able to eliminate COVID-19, we will find a way to live with it using a combination of treatments and therapies. The world economy will recover and this time we need to do everything we can to make it sustainable to prevent future pandemics and lessen the impact of climate change.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.