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We Do Not Control What Happens – Only How We Respond

We can always find something to do, even when our original intention or plan is thwarted. We can read. We can think. We can clean up and prepare.

by Zulkifli Nazim

“Don’t you know life is like a military campaign? One must serve on watch, another in reconnaissance, another on the front line. . . . So it is for us—each person’s life is a kind of battle, and a long and varied one too. You must keep watch like a soldier and do everything commanded. . . . You have been stationed in a key post, not some lowly place, and not for a short time but for life.” — Epictetus – Discourses.

Life is unpredictable. There is so much we have no control over. That can be overwhelming and crippling or can be having freedom and liberation. Having moral excellence is how we ensure this freedom and liberation. No matter what happens, we always have the capacity to use reason and make choices. We should always try to do the right thing. To let virtue guide us. It’s all that we control. Let the rest take care of itself, as it will with or without our consent.

Earth is home to millions of species. Just one dominates it, today, not man; but the Novel Corona Virus : Covid – 19. Our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities have modified almost every part of our planet. In fact, we are having a profound impact on it. Indeed, our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities are now the drivers of every global problem we face, even the devastating effects of this Corona Virus. I believe we can rightly call the situation we're in right now an emergency – an unprecedented planetary emergency.

The Corona Virus scare keeps everyone at home. We have time to kill. No Travelling, no marketing, no gallivanting and no whatever – which means that we are being stuck in this place or that place, for a couple days. Something would happen and someone would need to go out for emergency medical treatment or for emergency supplies; the impulse when faced with these kinds of situations, is to just wait, or complain or mess around.

Cato the Elder was built of that sturdy, original Roman stock. He didn’t put up with laziness or poor productivity. He didn’t tolerate it from his workers or his family or himself. As he wrote in “On Agriculture”, there is no excuse for just sitting around. “In rainy weather,” Cato advised, “try to find something to do indoors. Clean up, rather than be idle. Remember that even though work stops, expenses run on nonetheless.”

We all do it, writing stuff off as dead time - in layman’s language - time in which someone or something is inactive or unable to act productively. It’s a rather presumptuous thing to do, though, if you think about it. We kill time - the irony of it is, time is literally killing us. A second gone is gone and can never be regained. Can you really afford to let any of it be wasted?

We can always find something to do, even when our original intention or plan is thwarted. We can read. We can think. We can clean up and prepare. We can squeeze in a few minutes to do some household chores and we can also mope, simply doing nothing. Remember that we have the capacity and the intelligence to turn this rainy day into a productive day.

There is always something to do. You can’t afford for there not to be. Desperately want to change the world, but too many think that living a meaningful life requires doing something extraordinary and attention-grabbing like becoming celebrity, starting a wildly successful company or ending a humanitarian crisis. The most meaningful lives, we have learned, are often not the extraordinary ones – they are the ordinary ones. That is how we live with dignity and equanimity.

We could use more boldness, and less passivity. We could use more vision, courage, creativity, a sense of justice, a willingness to try and fail, to risk and hope. We could use more people courageous enough to reject the status quo and fight for change they believe in and cultivate steadiness of mind under stress.

Disasters and crises bring out the best in us. This simple fact is confirmed by more solid evidence than almost any other scientific insight, but we often forget. Sure, our news feeds are flooded with cynical stories and comments - reports on fist fights in super markets, attacking men and women with Mongolian features etc. In moments like these, it’s tempting to conclude that most people are selfish and egotistical.

But nothing could be further from the truth. For every anti-social jerk out there, there are thousands of doctors, cleaners and nurses working around the clock on our behalf. There are more people doing their best to prevent the virus from spreading further and how the crisis is bringing people closer together.

The enemy we are facing today is a deadly virus; and you cannot shoot a virus with all those sophisticated weaponry or using weapons of mass destruction. Those on the frontlines against coronavirus aren’t conscripts, mercenaries or enlisted men; they are our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, teachers, caregivers, store clerks, utility workers, small-business owners and employees. Like Li Wenliang and the doctors of Wuhan, many are suddenly saddled with unfathomable tasks, compounded by an increased risk of contamination and death they never signed up for. When all is said and done, perhaps we will recognize their sacrifice as true patriotism, saluting The active participation of our armed forces, the police force and civil defense forces, sans weapons, saluting our doctors and nurses, genuflecting and saying, “Thank you for your services,”

We will give them the proper recognition for this new class of people who sacrifice their health and their lives for ours. Perhaps, too, we will finally start to understand patriotism more as cultivating the health and life of our communities, rather than blowing up someone else’s community.

No one can be immune to the storms that shake the world today. What happens down our streets becomes as present in our lives. This is what that makes us present in vital and existential ways to what might be happening to others at great distance, around the world, where we too are part of this great equation.

The real patriotism and love of community may be the one to surface out of this whole awful mess.

We do not control the world around us, only how we respond—and that we must always respond with courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.

We continue to believe that we can grow closer in the end, finding each other, helping each other and feeling for each other, in this crisis. As Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, said this week: “Let’s distance ourselves from each other today so that we can embrace each other more warmly, tomorrow.”

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus - Discourses, 2.5.4–5

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