Defusing Covid Anxiety and Climate Worry

Fresno Bee, December 19, 2021

COVID restrictions are coming back. And climate change is wreaking havoc. It is easy to get depressed.

New categories of psychological affliction have appeared. Worries about the climate generate “eco-anxiety” and “ecological grief.” And “COVID anxiety syndrome” has emerged. A recent New York Times column maintains that COVID anxiety is plaguing the globe.

Political dysfunction contributes to despair. The scientists know what we ought to do. But politics prevents us from doing it. Vaccines and masks are refused. And the oil pushers keep us addicted to fossil fuels.

Growing anxiety is especially hard on young people. A new UC Berkeley grad was recently quoted as saying that health crises and climate catastrophes have led her to not want children. She said, “it would be wrong to bring someone into that chaos, without their consent.” I’ve heard similar sentiments from my students.

This is a sad result. Young people are typically a source of optimism and energy. But today’s youth are afraid of the future.

In response, we might point out that the future has always been scary. My generation grew up during the Cold War. Many of us expected nuclear winter to destroy life on earth. Nuclear weapons remain an ominous threat to humanity. But as you grow older, you learn that each generation has its crises.

You also learn that solutions to big problems require painstaking and tenacious effort. Social change does not happen overnight. The American revolution lasted seven years. It took another four score and seven years to abolish slavery. We are still working on racism and inequality.

Realizing that history moves slowly can alleviate angst. A culture of instant gratification fuels anxiety. If we don’t get what we want, we freak out. But history is not like DoorDash. It moves at its own pace.

Patience is especially important when dealing with epidemics and diseases. Colds and flus have to run their course. Immunity takes time to develop. It helps to know that prior pandemics were not cured overnight. The Spanish flu epidemic of the early 20th century blazed for at least two years. The Black Plague ravaged humanity for decades in the middle of the 14th century. It continued to recur for centuries.

The Earth’s climate unfolds across even larger time scales. The Earth was once covered with ice. At other times, it was much hotter. What’s “normal” for us is not what’s normal for the Earth.

Humans thrive under present conditions. But homo sapiens only emerged a few hundred thousand years ago. Our species will go extinct, like most other species. That’s just the way it goes. It doesn’t help to fret about it.

But it does help to recall how resilient and adaptable we are. Our ancestors left the warmth of Africa and migrated across the globe. When we encountered cold climates, we invented clothing and furnaces. When we settled in hot, dry places, we invented irrigation and air conditioning. We’ve visited the ocean’s depths, Mount Everest, and the moon. We also invented vaccines and solar panels.

We’ll adapt to COVID-19 and to the changing climate. Yet those adaptations are at the level of the species. Our individual choices matter for our personal survival. But evolution does not care about our individual choices. So don’t waste too much energy worrying about the survival of humanity or civilization.

In general, it’s wise to stop fretting. It is not healthy to dwell on disaster or ruminate on impending doom. The ancient Stoics advise us to stop worrying about things that are not in our control. The climate, the pandemic, the political world, and the course of history are simply not up to me.

This does not mean we should stop being prudent. Choose wisely with regard to your own body and behavior. Wear a mask. And get vaccinated. But stop fretting about other people’s choices. And lower your expectations about a return to “normal,” whatever that is.

“Tighten Up!” Self-Control and the Covid Finish Line

Fresno Bee, April 18, 2021

As more people get vaccinated and coronavirus restrictions ease up, public health officials are worried that we will ditch our masks and let down our guard. It is not yet time to celebrate. When you see the finish line, breathe deep and bear down.

Virtues such as patience, fortitude, and endurance are often ignored in a culture of instant gratification. Consumerism feeds the frenzy of appetite. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, we have not generally adopted a Spartan lifestyle. Instead, we have embraced DoorDash, Netflix, and the drive-thru window. Pornography consumption increased under COVID, as did alcoholism and obesity.

A recent survey reports that more than 60% of Americans gained weight while living under lockdown. The average weight gain was 29 pounds. This is worrying since obesity is an important factor in COVID-19 mortality.

Our obesity problem indicates the role that social systems play in supporting good (or bad) habits. Self-control is important. But social circumstances matter. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that COVID-related disruptions in school can increase obesity in children, as kids spend more time on screens, exercise less, and eat more unhealthy foods.

Social support helps develop the crucial ability to delay gratification. Delayed gratification is a sign of moral maturity and a key to living well.

The famous Stanford “marshmallow experiment” showed that children who could resist the temptation of immediate gratification ended up with better life outcomes. That experiment forms the basis of a book by Walter Mischel who claims that self-control is “the engine of success.” Critics have pointed out that self-control is linked to class, race, and other social determinants. The children of well-educated families are better at delaying gratification. And affluence may mitigate the negative outcomes of a lack of impulse control.

The question of self-control is as old as the Greeks. Aristotle connected self-regulation with happiness. Pleasure seduces us into making bad choices. Virtue helps us resist the siren-song of unbridled appetite.

Aristotle was puzzled by weakness of will. Why do some people have the ability to control their appetites while others do not? And how come we lose this ability when asleep, drunk, or overcome by strong emotions?

Aristotle compared weak-willed people to beasts. But unlike the beasts, we ought to know better. And we can train ourselves in self-control. Education and social support networks provide the solution. Good education and good friends support good habits.

The ancient Stoics developed this idea into an elaborate system of training in virtue and self-mastery. One important technique is to develop critical thinking. If you really understand what’s good for you, you will do the right thing. And if you really understood what was bad for you, you would avoid it.

But knowledge must be supplemented by habit. Stoic spiritual training also included physical austerities designed to accustom the self to hardship. The Greek root of our word “austerity” also means “bitterness.” The Stoics systematically embraced bitterness. They exposed themselves to cold and to heat. They fasted and abstained from sex. They exercised in the gymnasium and slept on hard beds. And they constantly reminded themselves of illness, grief and death.

Patience, fortitude, and endurance were key virtues for the Stoics. These are important values for living well. But these are not the only values that matter. Sometimes, it is wise to loosen up and enjoy life. Austerity can indeed be bitter. Asceticism needs to be balanced with sweetness and joy.

The Stoics also enjoyed pleasure, but in moderation. The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, was known as a sour-faced and reserved man. But like Socrates, he drank wine occasionally — although he did not get drunk.

There is a time and place for everything. At some point, our masks will come off and we’ll raise a glass at the local watering hole. But Stoic endurance is especially important as the finish line comes into view.

When the philosopher Diogenes was an old man, his friends invited him to rest and take it easy. He thought that was terrible advice. He said that the end of the race is no time to go slack. Rather, as the finish line approaches, we ought to tighten up and put on speed.

Beyond Self-Care: Cultivating an Active and Engaged Self

Self-care is a common theme for 2021.  One wellness website said: “focus on yourself this New Year’s Eve” and “indulge in these self-care strategies as you enter 2021.”  The article recommended “allowing yourself to indulge in a night of luxurious me-time.”

This is not a bad idea.  A little self-care is fine from time to time.  But self-indulgence is occasional.  It is not a way of life.  We need something larger and less transitory.  Self-care should become self-cultivation. 

The self is not an infant we care for or a set of appetites to be indulged.  The self is a dynamic system that seeks fruitful activity.  The adult self is a growing and changing, goal-oriented being.  The self thrives when it is challenged; it prospers when it produces lasting goods such as love, art, science, virtue, and wisdom.

The pampering indulgence of self-care is aimed at stressed out people.  Self-care is an antidote to the rat race and a response to the tragedies and suffering of 2020.  But “me-time” should not climax in onanistic withdrawal.  2021 will require the active intelligence of an engaged self.

There is some wisdom in self-care.  The self-care movement often affirms modesty and mindfulness.  This affirmation of simple pleasure is useful for those who are wound up tight by our cranky, competitive culture.  It is OK to unwind on occasion.  Drink some wine.  Soak in a tub.  Take it easy.

Sometimes the self-care movement offers clichéd common sense about hygiene and mindfulness.  Yes, we should drink more water, be present, and take walks in nature.  But this often becomes sappy, self-indulgent pampering—an apology for sleeping late or over-eating.  And self-care is often merely a marketing ploy for spas, lotions, and chocolate. 

The self-care movement is quite broad. On the one hand, it includes the discipline of yoga.  As one yoga website puts it, “Yoga is a great form of self-care.”  On the other hand, self-care is about… well, something else you do with your hand.  An article in The Oprah Magazine celebrates masturbation as part of a “self-care routine.”  The author reports that some evenings she even cares for herself twice!

There is nothing wrong with pleasure.  But moderation is essential.  And pleasure is not an end in itself.  Happiness and morality often require us to forego pleasure.  Work, discipline, and focus are essential for the self to thrive.  Stress and anxiety are essential parts of a creative and ambitious life.  When other people are suffering, self-care is selfish.  Justice and compassion impel us beyond self-care toward care for others.

This discussion can be traced back to the conflict between Epicureans, Stoics, and Christians.  Epicurus suggested we should live modestly, avoid controversy, and enjoy simple pleasures.  The Stoics rejected this.  They emphasized strenuous duty, while claiming that pleasure makes us soft.  Christians also rejected Epicureanism, focused as they were on suffering, death, and resurrection.  Epicurean self-care is too sensual for Stoics and too secular for Christians. 

Ideally, we would weave these ideas together by connecting self-care with self-cultivation.

Care is rooted in a kind of worry.  A care-free person has no worries.  When we care for something, we worry about it.  The problem of self-care is that it is a kind of worrying about the self.  It can be onanistic and self-absorbed. 

Cultivation is much more affirmative and dynamic.  When we cultivate something, we grow it.  Cultivation is related to “culture.”  Culture is a dynamic process that is the result of labor, interaction, and imagination. 

Human beings are not only focused on pleasure and relaxation.  We are also concerned with love, justice, courage, compassion, knowledge, art, and wisdom.  When we are absorbed in fulfilling activities, the self fades away.  The self-oriented path of indulgence is limited in comparison with the self-less activity of inspiration, insight, and interconnection. 

So here is what I propose for the new year.  Instead of retreating to the bathtub, let’s put our hands to work.  Learn.  Teach.  Create.  Make music.  Do science.  Love your neighbor.  Fight for justice.  Pursue wisdom.  These are the goods of a fully human life.  The challenge of 2021—and of life in general—is to cultivate a self that loses itself in inspired and engaged activity. 

Giving Thanks for Simple Things

Covid-19 has transformed Thanksgiving.  This year we should shelter within our bubbles and stay close to home.  Rather than complaining about a downsized holiday, let’s use this as an opportunity to rediscover the wisdom of living modestly and being thankful.

Ancient wisdom celebrates gratitude and simplicity.  Ancient sages teach us to be grateful for simple things and to celebrate abundance without extravagance.

Thanksgiving has strayed far from this idea.  Rather than a time to count your blessings and give thanks, it became an orgy of over-indulgence.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a department store advertising gimmick.  The Black Friday frenzy is far removed from gratitude.  Good riddance to these extravagances. 

The Puritans of New England would be appalled that this festival of gluttony and greed commemorated their colonial adventure.  The Puritans connected thanksgiving with repentance and purification.  Instead of feasting, early Americans typically linked the ritual of giving thanks to fasting. Thomas Jefferson called for” public days of fasting and thanksgiving” when he was governor of Virginia.  During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln called for several days of “fasting and thanksgiving.”  In 1863, when Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving, he called for a day of prayer and “humble penitence.”   

This may go too far for those of us with a more secular orientation.  But there is wisdom in humility and abstinence.  You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand this.  Abstinence clarifies values.  Fasting heightens appreciation for simple things.  A thanksgiving feast that breaks a fast should consist of modest fare, eaten mindfully.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and abstinence are linked in most of the world’s traditions.  Muslims practice something like this during Ramadan.  The Buddha fasted and meditated on the way to enlightenment.  Ancient Taoist texts speak of “fasting of the mind” giving rise to the freedom of emptiness. 

This is not as far out and mystical as it sounds.  Mindful self-restraint quiets envy and desire.  The consuming self is like a vacuum.  It sucks things in: food, pleasure, and possessions.  But all of this frantic sucking produces anxiety, fear, greed, and envy. 

The mindful self stops sucking.  It becomes less focused on its own emptiness and more aware of its secret abundance.  The Greek sage Epicurus said that we already possess all that we need in abundance.  But we are confused.  We mistake wealth for happiness.  And we allow greed to make us ungrateful.  

When we discover self-sufficient abundance, it overflows.  It then becomes easier to give—and to give thanks.  The consuming self is a sucker and a taker.  The grateful self is content with what it has.  And in its contentment, it discovers compassion.

The ancient Greeks advise us to gratefully accept what fate gives us.  Seneca recommended an occasional fast as a reminder to be thankful.  This trains the spirit to be content no matter what fate sends our way.  Stoic serenity does not depend on money or good fortune.  Rather, it is built upon simplicity and gratitude. 

Seneca expressed these ideas in a letter criticizing the Saturnalia, the Roman equivalent of our holiday season.  He complained that preparations for the annual orgy went on all year.  And he noted that the season culminated in drunkenness and vomiting.  Seneca said it is wise to avoid all of that and to learn to “celebrate without extravagance.” 

The pandemic can help us re-learn this ancient lesson.  The usual extravagances have been cancelled.  And we are forced to abstain.  Rather than complain, let’s rediscover the wisdom of simplicity and gratitude. 

Quit Complaining

In his victory speech Joe Biden said, “put away the harsh rhetoric, and lower the temperature.” He’s right. Let’s be done with grievance and aggravation.  Constant complaining cramps the soul and sickens society. 

My grandfather put this crudely. He’d often say, “quit your bitchin’.” A poet would say, “Let us not be aggrieved.”

The grievance machine runs on bile.  President Trump is complainer-in-chief.  He has griped and grumbled for years: from American carnage to a rigged election.  Conservative commentators copy his kvetching and complain about the “frauds and liars” in the liberal establishment. 

Of course liberals love lambasting Trump. They also lament his popularity.  After the election a headline in Politico said, “Democrats look at Trump voters and wonder, ‘What the hell is your problem?’”

All of this complaining causes heartburn.  Grievance produces grief.  Anger begets animosity.  And a small mind gets focused on small things.

There is a time and place for righteous indignation—but it is a narrow place and a limited time.  Genuine injustice ought to enrage us.  But rage can burn a hole in your heart if it is not transformed into creative activity.

Common sense teaches this.  Complaining about being hungry does not fill your stomach.  Whining about the wind won’t stop it from blowing.  But griping and groaning will certainly make you more miserable. 

Ancient wisdom traditions tell us to bear hardship without complaint.  They emphasize resilience and teach us to give up grousing.  The Stoics recommend taking things as they come without wishing them to be otherwise.  The Taoists teach us to stop fussing and fuming by learning to flow with the changes .

The wisdom of patient endurance and going with the flow is obvious.  But quiet retreat is not the whole answer.  The further lesson is to get to work.  We ought to transform resentment into resourceful action.  If the wind is blowing, close the window.  If you are hungry, cook something. 

Scoop Nisker used to say, “if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”  We might add, “if you don’t like what’s happening, then either fix it or shut up.” 

Partisanship feeds on outrage.  The headlines called this the most important election of our lifetime.  The Republicans claimed it was a fight against socialism, anarchist violence, and leftist totalitarianism.  The Democrats claim.ed it was a fight against fascism, authoritarianism, and malicious incompetence. 

This created historically high voter turnout.  But a third of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote.  While the partisans are screaming, a third of Americans opted out.  Maybe the screaming has turned them off. Some non-voters are ignorant and lazy.  But some are sickened by the vitriol of the public sphere.

Grievance is a sales technique.  It keeps us glued to our screens.  Clever partisans fan the flames of grievance and complaint. But this divides us and closes people’s minds.

Our complainer-in-chief is a master of the dark art of aggravation.  His vain boasts and vile complaints are mostly hot air.  But his followers love it.  His opponents love to hate it.  And the viewing public keeps tuning in. 

The Trump era is like spicy food.  It’s exciting.  But it disrupts the digestion.  Some people get addicted to the cycle of heat and misery.  Others can’t stand the smell it leaves behind.

It’s wise to stop binging on spicy stuff. Most people intuitively understand this.  It is difficult to live life permanently aggrieved. Active people have little time for grievance.  We have work to do, families to care for, and activities to enjoy. 

Of course, there is irony in complaining about complaining.  At some point, we just need to stop it.

The world’s traditions teach us how to lower the temperature. Instead of grumbling, be grateful.  Instead of complaining, have deep conversations.  And instead of pulling your hair out, put your hands to work.