This is a frustrating fall.
The back-to-school season is usually an optimistic time full of new ideas, new projects and new friends. But this year students are stuck at home. Football is canceled. There is unemployment and social unrest. Our leaders fail to inspire. And the pandemic rages on.
We need courage and wisdom to persevere. In times of crisis, philosophical insight provides consolation. The world’s wisdom traditions share a common message of moderation and self-control.
It helps to have a realistic view of the universe and our place within it. The Buddha taught that life is full of suffering. The Greeks said, “all men are mortal.” This means we should abandon wishful thinking. There is no miracle cure for the human condition. Even the best of us has feet of clay. Great empires collapse. Life includes loss. And nothing lasts forever.
Our current troubles are not unique. History shows that corruption and incompetence are commonplace. Thousands of years ago, Plato described the social and political world as a ship of fools. Selfish and ignorant people struggle for power. Virtuous people are thrown overboard. This has always been true. Our present struggles are par for the course.
But some stability can be found, even in a storm. Hygiene provides a key. The word “hygiene” comes from a Greek word linked to health, harmony, and balance.
The pandemic has given us a simple recipe for staying healthy. Keep your hands clean. Keep your face covered. And stay away from other people. This routine is also a useful metaphor for living well.
Physical health matters. Wash your hands, get some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. But “keeping your hands clean” is also a moral idea. The Bible links cleans hands to a pure heart. The Stoics said that it’s better to have clean hands than full ones.
Masking is another moral metaphor. A mask is a sign of modesty. Modest people keep themselves appropriately concealed. It is especially important to cover your mouth. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t let your lips flap and your tongue wag. In fact, it is best to keep your mouth shut most of the time. In the Taoist tradition, a sage is pictured as someone who speaks without moving her lips.
Social distancing is also healthy and wise. A virus can infect you. But so too can dumb ideas and bad habits. Solitude is a source of enlightenment. Solitude is not loneliness. Lonely people remain obsessed with other people. But you are not alone when you are one with the universe. You don’t have to be a monk to understand that it is often better to mind your own business.
Wisdom involves knowing who and what to ignore. It also demands that we pay attention. Compassion, love, and justice are crucial. But human beings have limited capacities and even love must be balanced with self-preservation. Be kind to strangers. But you can’t save everyone. And the world won’t change overnight.
Sometimes, when things are really going badly, it is wise to abandon ship. Loyalty is important. But it can be an anchor that holds you down.
Speaking of anchors, another lesson must be considered — the lesson of hope. Anchors are symbols of hope. Wisdom reminds us that the present crisis won’t last forever. But it’s not clear that we’ll ever return to “normal.” Hope is not an anchor that preserves the normal. It is also a sail that leads beyond the horizon.
A wise hope recognizes that the future is up to us. There are no utopias. But you can improve your own life. The Stoics teach you to focus on mastering your own attitude and effort. Progress depends upon energy and intention. No one else can live your life. To excel at anything, you have to practice. So stop blaming others and cursing the wind. In order to get anywhere you have to get to work.
These kinds of lessons are not taught in the formal school curriculum. But these are the kinds of lessons we need these days. The crisis in our republic is real. The ship of fools is foundering. We all need wisdom to help us ride this storm.