More than five hundred people had died in just five days. All in one small neighborhood. A disproportionate number of them children. It was 1854 and this was one of the worst cholera epidemics London had ever seen. The cause was a mystery and until it was found, children would keep dying.
The bacterium Vibrio cholerae infects the small intestine and basically squeezes the water from your body until your organs fail. How does it get from one person’s intestine to another? Umm, let’s just say allowing “waste water” to mix with “drinking water” has never been a great idea. It’s why you don’t hear about about cholera outbreaks in the developed world today. There’s effective sanitation to kill bacteria. But in the 1850’s people didn’t even believe in bacteria. The germ theory of disease was not mainstream yet — it had about as much legitimacy as believing in fairies.
People thought disease was caused by bad smells. Yes, really. And as long as the “miasma theory” of disease reigned, children would keep dying in London. The current strain of cholera was so rapacious people were going from health to death in under 12 hours…
The epidemic would be stopped by two unlikely heroes. Two men who could not be more different. And fixing an epidemiology crisis wasn’t either of their jobs. But what the two had in common was they accepted the challenge before them. When the city was gripped with fear, they rose to the occasion.
John Snow didn’t have to get involved in this. He was an extremely successful doctor. When Queen Victoria had her 8th child, guess who the anesthesiologist was? Yeah, Snow was big time. But he accepted the challenge of the cholera outbreak. Nobody even asked him to.
From The Ghost Map:
Here we have a man who had reached the very pinnacle of Victorian medical practice—attending on the queen of England with a procedure that he himself had pioneered—who was nonetheless willing to spend every spare moment away from his practice knocking on hundreds of doors in some of London’s most dangerous neighborhoods, seeking out specifically those houses that had been attacked by the most dread disease of the age. But without that tenacity, without that fearlessness, without that readiness to leave behind the safety of professional success and royal patronage, and venture into the streets, his “grand experiment”—as Snow came to call it—would have gone nowhere.
Snow was convinced the miasma theory was bunk. He knew cholera was spreading via the water system. His prime suspect? The Broad Street pump. He’d mapped the deaths and realized they radiated out from where the locals fetched their water.
But he couldn’t answer all the questions the miasmists threw at him: What started the epidemic? Why did children die but old widows live? Why were men who worked at the factories near the pump unaffected?
Snow took their questions as challenges and worked harder. It was a race against time as the disease claimed more victims. But he got answers. Why didn’t the factory men die? He found that the commercial facilities all had private water pipelines. And the employees at the Lion Brewery on Broad Street all drank the company’s malt liquor while at work. (I’m not sure how productive these guys were by the end of the day, but they definitely didn’t die.)
Snow took his map to the local Board of Governors. They didn’t believe this crazy theory about “germs” but citizens were dying. So what did they have to lose? They ordered the pump handle removed. Cholera deaths spiked… and then dropped off to nearly zero.
But it was only a small victory for Snow. His waterborne theory of disease was still not accepted. He still couldn’t explain why children died and widows lived. He still did not know how it started. It was only a matter of time before another epidemic would occur…
Enter Reverend Henry Whitehead. He thought Snow was full of it. He wanted to prove the fancypants doctor wrong. There was no reason for a chaplain to run around playing amateur epidemiologist. But his regular visits to his parishioners had become a tour of suffering. He took it upon himself to find answers. He accepted the challenge.
Frankly, Whitehead was the kind of priest who spent more time in taverns than church. But this was an advantage. He knew everybody. Snow had studied the dead; Whitehead would talk to the living. He contacted 497 people in the neighborhood — even tracking down those who had fled as the deaths mounted.
In doing so he gathered all the evidence he needed to prove that… well, to prove that Snow was right. And by talking to his parishioners Whitehead learned that fetching water from the pump was a common chore for children. That’s why they died. But the frail widows had no one to go to the pump for them… so they lived.
Snow and Whitehead joined forces. One knew the science; the other knew the neighborhood. To prove the waterborne theory and end the epidemics for good they had to track down the “index case” – patient zero. Who had died first?
They checked the dates but found no smoking gun. The two broadened their search of the records. Whitehead happened upon a notice of a baby that had died of “exhaustion” near Broad Street before the outbreak. It had diarrhea so bad nearly all the water had left its body. That clinched it. Baby Lewis was their index case. But how could an infant possibly start an epidemic?
They had to interview the mother. Whitehead knew her — he knew everybody. They found she kept a clean house. No miasma here. In fact she made sure to get the sick child’s dirty diapers out of her home. She tossed them in the cesspool out back. The one cesspool that they would discover fed straight into the Broad Street pump…
Yeah, yuck. Super yuck. But the mystery was solved. As the 19th century progressed the miasma theory would give way as the germ theory of disease won out. Cholera epidemics would become a thing of the past.
Snow is now known as the father of epidemiology. All that “contact tracing” stuff you hear about with COVID-19? That was started by Snow and Whitehead making maps and knocking on doors in London. Literally, these guys changed the world. All because two people who didn’t need to do anything decided to step forward and accept a challenge…
Allllllllrighty. Some are probably saying, “Nice story. So what?”
Look, I’m not saying you need to catch the next flight to Wuhan and start drawing maps. Most of us are still quarantined to our homes continuing a Netflix marathon of Contagion, Outbreak, and I am Legend.
But this epidemic is affecting us all, sick or not. Our baseline level of stress is off the charts. Financial anxieties. Loneliness. Job loss. Those of us who are uninfected face a plague of our own: a collective depression.
Our heads are fuzzy. We have bad dreams. We’re locked inside just waiting for this to end. Frankly, we’re almost anesthetized. And it’s the thing we can least afford to be right now. There is much we need to do to help ourselves and those we love survive and cope. And there will be even more work ahead as we must rebuild our lives in a very different world. It’s one thing to not have the resources to address a problem; it’s another to not have the will. How do we break free of this malaise?
Well, it was the ancient Greeks who created the miasma theory of disease. Yeah, they got that one wrong. (Note: Never look to the distant past for lessons on microbiology.) On the other hand, we can learn a lot from those same guys when it comes to psychology…
Yes, it’s time for another lesson from the Stoics. They’re going to teach us to reframe the difficulties before us so we can get our butts off the couch and find the will to fight this thing.
From The Stoic Challenge:
…the Stoics’ contribution to psychology is particularly impressive; indeed, the Stoic test strategy is based on their appreciation of a phenomenon that has been rediscovered by modern psychologists, who christened it the framing effect: how we mentally characterize a situation has a profound impact on how we respond to it emotionally. The Stoics realized that we have considerable flexibility in how we frame the situations we experience. They discovered, more precisely, that by thinking of setbacks as tests of our character, we can dramatically alter our emotional response to them.
How can we reframe the problems of the COVID-19 epidemic? The same way Snow and Whitehead beat their own epidemic. They saw it as a challenge. For Whitehead it was a calling to help his community. For Snow it was a cerebral puzzle — his “grand experiment.” Neither got depressed and gave up – they rose to the occasion. Their problems actually energized them.
As the great Stoic Epictetus said:
The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish. From my perspective, no one’s difficulties ever gave him a better test than yours, if you are prepared to make use of them the way a wrestler makes use of an opponent in peak condition.
It’s a challenge. A test of your resilience and resourcefulness. Something that doesn’t weaken your resolve — but makes you stronger as you engage with it. To pass this test we must stay calm while finding a workaround for any setback. It is a grand game. One with high stakes, true, but one we can win with the right attitude.
How do we develop that attitude? We’ll get tips from William Irvine’s book The Stoic Challenge and from the writings of the Stoics themselves. Are you ready?
Good. Throw on your toga. Time to rise to the occasion — while putting a smile underneath that N95 mask…
1) The Morning Ritual
First, we gotta clear up a pervasive myth. The Stoics were not emotionless killjoys. Their philosophy was focused on reducing negative emotions and living a good, full life. Marcus Aurelius said:
When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.
Feels good, right? But he also said:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly…
No, he was not bipolar. Nor was he being cynical or pessimistic. He was, if you’ll excuse the pun, saying we need to “inoculate” ourselves against a bad habit we all have: in the abstract we know life will be hard at times, but we don’t act like we know that.
If I asked you, “Do you expect life will be easy and you’ll always get what you want on the first try and nothing will ever go wrong or get in your way?” you’d laugh at me and say “Of course not.” You know there will be problems and setbacks. And then when the problems and setbacks actually happen, uh… we are shocked, angry, frustrated or sad. Does that make any sense at all?
Often our unconscious operating belief is: “The world owes me simplicity and convenience at all times.” I think a more realistic perspective is often: “The world meets no one halfway.” That’s not cynicism or pessimism. It’s an “inoculation” against the creeping entitlement we all have. The world doesn’t owe us anything. COVID-19 being a big flashing neon reminder.
But if we wake and remind ourselves that the world doesn’t owe us anything, that you will be put to the test today, then we can dodge the surprise. And the surprise is where most of the negative emotions start. Head that off and there’s no entitlement, no overinflated expectation of ease. You know working out at the gym will be exhausting. It’s no surprise. But you also know it will make you better. You embrace the challenge. Same with life in general.
It’s ironic that we spend so much time most mornings preparing for the day, but we don’t prepare the thing that causes us the biggest setbacks and the most suffering — our minds. The anger, frustration, disappointment and sadness that we feel are often much more problematic than the minor events that trigger those feelings. The thing that most often gets in the way of attaining what you want, that stops you from resourcefully overcoming challenges and enjoying the process is your perspective.
Don’t let your mind be the weakest link. There is so much good in life — but the world meets no one halfway. We must accept the challenges of life every morning. When we do that we can not only enjoy the good ahead, but we can also savor the twists and turns life throws at us. This is the attitude we need in order to face the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Okay, your mind is ready for the day ahead. Life is good, but that doesn’t mean the goodness is going to be handed to you. You accept that challenge…
And of course 10 minutes later you totally forget you ever did the ritual because you’re busy, we’re all human and, y’know, “stuff” happened.
Uhhhh, so what then?
2) Notice and Remind
You want to actively notice when something happens that is going to make those negative emotions flare. Before you say, “This isn’t fair!” or roll your eyes at life, remind yourself that they’re not problems, they’re challenges.
Ever have someone say, “I bet you can’t do it” and you are suddenly energized to prove them wrong? Yes. That. Do it to yourself. Life is a test where you win by being resourceful and resilient in the face of adversity. Embrace the challenge. Prove your mettle.
We usually focus on undoing negative emotions like anger, sadness, or frustration. But reframing is better. It has awesome, next-level powers because if you successfully reframe life’s setbacks those negative emotions never occur in the first place. You know, “an ounce of prevention, a pound of cure” and all that.
When we expect life to be easy, we’re frustrated when it’s not. But when we expect challenges, it’s more like playing a sport. We know the other team is going to try to defeat us — that’s why they’re there. And it’s our role not to let them. Denying or suppressing negative emotions saps us of energy and distracts us from our goals. Reframing energizes us and motivates us to win.
Our buddy Seneca is gonna break it down for us:
It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed forever. I am not, therefore, going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.
You are a chess player and your opponent has made a good move against you. You don’t shout, “That shouldn’t happen!” No, you smirk and say, “Ah, well-played!” And then you examine the board and plan a new path to victory.
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Remind yourself that you are a spirited challenger entering a great competition. Life is not a crushing burden, but a chance to show your stuff. And, holding that frame, what do you do next?
When you’re not diverting your energy to anger and shaking your fist at the universe, you’re better able to turn your focus toward solutions to your chess opponent’s gambits.
The world meets no one halfway. You know this. You expect resistance. Life is a wily competitor. You will devote your energy to being just as clever with your resourcefulness.
John Snow solved the puzzle of the Broad Street Pump by applying science. Henry Whitehead found answers by reaching out to his network.
What they didn’t do was stomp their feet and scream, “Bad smells aren’t the problem, you idiots!” No, they turned their energy toward solving the mystery and proving their case.
As Marcus Aurelius said 2000 years ago:
For the mind adapts and converts any obstacle to its action into a means of achieving it. That which is an impediment to action is turned to advance action. The obstacle on the path becomes the way.
Now I didn’t say this would all be easy. At least not at first. Your old way of thinking will fight back:
“I WANT EVERYTHING TO BE EASY. GIVE IT TO ME NOWWWWWW.”
Sorry, Veruca. Not gonna happen. Take that thought for what it really is: your old frame fighting back. And that’s just another clever move by your opponent, Life. This is when you smirk and say, “Ah, psychological warfare! An attempt to trick me into self-defeat. Well-played, Life. You are truly a worthy opponent. But I shall not be fooled. It’s merely another challenge. I’m going to adjust my monocle and endeavor to find a most clever way to defeat you!”
Hold your frame. Embrace the challenge and redirect your attention toward resourcefully solving the problem at hand. You’re far more creative when you’re not whining and saying, “But this shouldn’t happen to meeeeeeeee!”
(To learn the secrets to how to be resilient during the pandemic, click here.)
You have bested your opponent in single combat. Life has lost this round and you are victorious. Time to simply move on to the next challenge?
Nope, not just yet…
Reframing is not just a gimmick. You’re testing yourself in order to improve. So keep score of your performances to make sure you’re getting better.
After you’ve dealt with a challenge, evaluate yourself on equanimity, resilience and problem solving:
- Did you stay calm?
- Did you quit?
- Did you solve the problem optimally?
And then ask yourself: How can I do better next time? What did Life, that truly cunning opponent, do in the most recent duel that made you lose your frame? Identify the weak point and address it.
Don’t judge yourself as “good” or “bad.” There is no failure here, only growth. Performing poorly in one challenge doesn’t make you “bad” but engaging in this process will definitely make you “better” with time.
You would not want to miss these opportunities to strive and grow. As our buddy Seneca said:
You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even yourself.
Life is a sparring partner of noble intent who wants to make you stronger, wiser, and more mature… but it’s gonna take some sweat.
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We have faced many challenges throughout this post, but we have conquered them all. Good show, old man! Tally-ho!
Let’s round it all up — and learn the best perspective to have in order to beat this pandemic and help those around us thrive…
This is the #1 ritual you need to do every day:
- The morning ritual: Life has many wonderful things to offer. But you know they won’t all come easy. You must expect and accept challenges. You know this is true — you just don’t do it.
- Notice and remind: In the 0.2 seconds since you read the above your brain has gone back to thinking it deserves everything its way, all the time, immediately. Gently remind your grey matter that that’s not realistic. And keep reminding it because your arch-nemesis, Life, is full of guile and shall show no quarter. Resist its artful trickery and hold your frame evermore!
- Resourcefulness: When you’re not gnashing your teeth due to unrealistic expectations you have more energy to optimally solve problems. We’re more creative when we’re not complaining.
- Scoring: Keep trying to improve. Score yourself on equanimity, resilience and problem-solving. The reward isn’t really a high score. The reward is getting what you want and suffering less in the process.
In the end, you want to be the kind of person that seeks challenges. No, I’m not saying you want to go out of your way to make life difficult for yourself. I’m saying you want to be the kind of person who strives.
This makes life an ongoing experience of growth. And, dare I say, it makes the difficulties of the world, well… fun.
Don’t fear failure. If you succeed every time, you haven’t set the bar high enough. Failure on occasion tells you that you really are striving. To get stronger, you must increase the weight you lift. This is the path to resilience.
And that’s what the world and the ones you love need from you right now. Economically there might be a “Great Depression” but we can resist our collective depression. We can fight the malaise we’re feeling and rise to the occasion.
The world meets no one halfway. There is much good for life, but there will always be struggle.
This pandemic will end. But life’s frustrations will never end…
Unless you see them as challenges.
This article originally appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.