A Stoic View of Life with Covid-19

At least 200,000 people are marked for death worldwide and they don’t even know it. They are the back half of “the curve.” They are essentially walking dead.

That is the cold, harsh reality of statistics. Of the numbers.

Numbers don’t have feelings. They don’t care—about individuals, about goals, about unfinished business, about anything. The numbers just… are. And sometimes they sentence us to fates we’d rather not think about.

Like, a certain number of people will be diagnosed with cancer each year. A certain percentage of people are admitted to Harvard. A certain number of planes will fall from the sky.

Here’s another number: Right now the conservative forecast for total deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S by August 4th is 72,000. Worldwide, the cumulative total will likely be much higher. Thus far, over 62,000 Americans have lost their lives due to COVID-19, with excess mortality rates indicating some under-reporting in that number. Some states are showing early signs of cases and deaths possibly leveling off (and that tentative success might be undermined by selfish protestors). But still thousands of people die every day, with tubes down their throats and family members blocked from their bedsides.

In moments like this we would be wise not to look away but to engage earnestly with this sobering memento mori exercise: those 200,000 who are marked to die; those walking dead; those poor folks who may not even be infected yet or know their number has come up…

One of those people might well be you. Or it could be your partner, your spouse, your son or daughter, your mom or dad, your grandmother, your neighbor, your employer, your mentor. It could be some or all of them.

This idea that we are on the proscription list—which in Ancient Rome was the list of citizens marked for banishment and de facto execution—is not just theoretical. 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year, 606,000 from cancer, 167,000 from accidents or unintentional injuries, 159,000 from respiratory diseases, 147,000 from stroke. Those are real deaths. Yours could be among them. Eventually, it will be. Guaranteed. Those are the numbers. We have all been selected to die. Our only hope is that we live well for a long time on that list before our number gets pulled.

Marcus said, “You could leave life right now, let that determine what you do and say and think.” He wrote that during the plague. Today, let’s add: You have life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. Let that make you brave also. As Seneca quoted many times, all that a death sentence from a tyrant or from a pandemic can do is take you more quickly somewhere you were already being led. He would know.

Life is short. Numbers are harsh. There’s nothing we can do about that. But we can be brave and be present and live while we can. And hope, each day, to be spared for a little while longer…

PS: Memento mori—”you could leave life right now”—is the most sobering and powerful exercise in Stoicism. It comes to us from a man who survived through the fifteen years of the Antonine Plague and is worth applying and thinking about today. Learn more here.

One thought on “A Stoic View of Life with Covid-19

  1. Eloquent reminder of some important points. I agree with the Stoic perspective as a way to lead my life. But of course people don’t go to work or a restaurant worrying about whether that act alone is going to give them cancer or a heart attack. The degree of contagion of this virus if not contained appears to be vicious. On the other hand, people have been sent into other work conditions that were known to be causing serious disease to the workers, like mining on the Burin Peninsula, for example.


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