Terror strikes,” Seneca wrote, “amid the most tranquil surroundings, and without any disturbance in the background to give rise to them calamities spring from the least expected quarter. . . . [W]e need to envisage every possibility and to strengthen the spirit to deal with the things which may conceivably come about.”
People of Seneca’s time surely found the task of preparing for life’s sudden misfortunes as challenging as we do today. Our wealth, materialism, and technological advancement have fostered illusions of safety, and we will have as hard a time, or harder, as did Seneca and his Roman contemporaries in reconciling ourselves to a changed world.
That Covid-19 and the global response to it is now a historical event on the level of 9/11 is self-evident. It is, if anything, crueler than 9/11, which, deadly as it was, struck all at once, and only in America, whereas the virus strikes continually, and everywhere—the way it did outside Prince Prospero’s abbey in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” whose revelers are assured that they have avoided its contagion until they find, to their horror, that it has crept inside the gates. Trying to cordon off destruction is an old human impulse, and, as the coronavirus began spreading around the United States, reports came of the wealthy fleeing to their luxurious redoubts.
The virus drives a special kind of fear that anyone, even someone in one’s own home, might carry it. This instinct differs sharply from those aroused by 9/11. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, it was alleged that people who looked a certain way—Muslims, mostly—might be the targets of unfair scrutiny or mistreatment. Their complaints had a basis in particularity that is meaningless now.
After the initial shock of 9/11, people came together—to volunteer, to attend baseball games, to fall in love, or even go shopping. Now, we’re all captive in our homes and neighborhoods, sheltering in place, averting our eyes, even on outdoor walks, lest some vapor trailing from a stranger’s mouth or nose reach us. It is inhuman, even on a small scale, to live this way.
What many are left with is either outright fear or a prevailing sense of dread. Seneca would advise us that what we’re experiencing is inevitable, all part of the play of life and its end—death. We would bear our burdens better if we carried them with more resignation and less terror. “There is but one thing holding us in fetters, and that is our love of life,” he writes. “There is no need to cast this love out altogether, but it does need to be lessened somewhat so that, in the event of circumstances ever demanding this, nothing may stand in the way of our being prepared to do at once what we must do at some time or other.”
In the meantime, he counsels, we can remind ourselves that we possess the capacity to handle whatever we face. “Call to mind things which you have done that have been upright or courageous; run over in your mind the finest parts that you have played.” Sometimes, he writes, “even to live is an act of bravery.” And if we fall ill, we should remember that “a person’s bravery is no less evident under the bed-clothes.” We cannot choose what happens, but we can choose how to respond.
The virus is cruel not only in its treatment of the afflicted but also of those left standing by, watching, waiting for the cloud of contagion to pass. It denies us the consolation of social gathering and connection; it leaves lonely people lonelier, vulnerable people more vulnerable; it has destroyed countless livelihoods, and with them immeasurable indices of family life, relationships, and well-being.
Many worry that social or political dissolution lies just beneath the surface of these unprecedented restraints. Time will tell. What is certain is that this new catastrophe forces us to call upon our own inner resources in ways in which most Americans are unfamiliar. “Let fate find us ready and eager,” Seneca urges. If fate finds us so, it will be because we have prepared ourselves, not so much by washing our hands, as important as that remains, but by fortifying our souls. A pandemic is a bad time to consult one’s internal cupboard and find it bare—but a good time to build it up, if ever a time there is.
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