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If You Think COVID-19 is Bad...

"What should a philosopher say, then, in each of the hardships of life? 'It is for this that I've been training myself; it is for this that I was practicing.' ... And, then, when the time comes for you to act, will you quail? Now is the moment to suffer a fever; may it proceed as it should; to undergo thirst, may you undergo it in the right spirit; to undergo hunger, may you undergo it in the right spirit. Isn't that within your power? Who can prevent you? Yes, a doctor can prevent you from drinking, but he can't prevent you from bearing thirst in the right way; he may prevent you from eating, but he can't prevent you from facing hunger in the right way." -Discourses 3.10.7-3.10.9


"Life is more like wrestling than dancing; it must be ready to keep its feet against all onsets however unexpected." -Meditations Bk VII, 61

"It is difficulties that reveal what men amount to; and so, whenever you're struck by a difficulty, remember that God, like a trainer in the gymnasium, has matched you against a tough young opponent." -Discourses 1.24.1

 

Yesterday, I re-read James Stockdale's address that he delivered at King's College, London, on November 15, 1993. When talking about a modern Stoic sage, I think Stockdale comes very close. He was a vice admiral in the Vietnam War when he his plane was shot down on September 9, 1965. A few years before the war, Stockdale started studying philosophy at the recommendation of an advisor. Here, he was introduced to Epictetus and his works. It is at this time when Stockdale started his Stoic training that would give him the moral courage to get him through his time as a prisoner of war. As he ejected from his aircraft, he whispered to himself, "Five years down there, at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus."

Upon entering the North Vietnamese prison, he was subject to rope torture, leg irons, and extended time of solitary confinement. His leg was broken twice during the course of his seven-year imprisonment. During these grueling sessions, he said that he kept this passage of Epictetus in mind: "A man's master is he who is able to confer or remove whatever that man seeks or shuns. Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others; else he might necessarily a slave" (Enchiridion XI:2). Toward the end of his time as prisoner, he used a makeshift razor to slit his wrists in order to not let the enemy gain useful information. He eventually survived and was awarded the Medal of Honor. I continue to feel inspiration in new ways every time I revisit his testimony of the experience.


After reading this speech again, I felt a need to compare it with today's pandemic. Truly - comparing the hardships the world has experienced over the past couple months pales in comparison with Stockdale's horrific seven-year imprisonment. Many times, we are quick to decry our situation and reduce our experience to the "woe is me" mentality of a helpless victim. Bottom line: you are not helpless. Rise up. You have all the armaments you need to battle these circumstances.


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