Only now, or in recent months, have people started to recognise the impact of Covid on mental health. This is the unseen outcome from restrictions to personal and collective freedoms, from financial stresses, and here in the U.K. from a mainstream media that constantly ran negative headlines and opinionated “reports” that suited a left wing agenda to undermine government. This was the focus of my previous post Surviving Covid #1 Mental Health Ignored, and I am following it up today with the story of how we suddenly recognised the risk and dealt with it in 2020.
We live in a small Cotswolds village in England, our cul-de-sac comprises 3 houses within a larger one of just 20 houses on the edge of farmland and a nature reserve. So, we are three retired couples who get on well with each other but don’t particularly interact a lot ……. until the time of the first Covid lockdown in England. I was walking across the garden with a glass of wine in my hand, it was exactly 12 noon, and a head appeared over the fence saying “what’s your lunchtime gargle today then?”. It was Keith at Number 16, who refused my offer of a glass of Pommard but said he’d have one at 6pm! We laughed, then had a bit of a rant about life in general before he wandered off. About an hour later Dr C came out to the garden and said she’d had a short walk down the street and met Sandy, Keith’s wife. They too had a rant about restrictions etc, but, had come up with the idea of a 6pm “community gargle” in our cul-de-sac, to sit on chairs on our own drives, properly social distanced, for a pre dinner glass of wine.
And so it began, glasses of wine, outdoors, come rain or sunshine, in shirtsleeves, wrapped in blankets or under umbrellas. Conversations varied but inevitably centred on the politics of the day, but often strayed into jokes, village news, garden issues, as well as mocking poor Anne, Norrie’s wife who is the only “left winger” amongst us and supporter of the European Union.
The neighbourliness continued across the summer and autumn as Keith, Norrie and I worked together to construct a new paved patio in my garden, remove and cut up a 40 year old Ash Tree in Keith’s garden, and finally to install a hot tub (!) in Norrie’s garden. Wives contributed via freshly baked cakes and sausage rolls.
Next into the winter and spring, Keith founded The Curry Club based on us all having the book Indian Restaurant Curry At Home. The sheer lunacy of this continues as our street now smells like central Kathmandu, shared shopping results in sacks of Garam Masaala rather than packets or tins, and best of all, sharing each other’s dishes as we cook on different days. Dr C might be the best and most experienced cook of Asian food but Keith and Sandy’s presentation beats us all!
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Ancient Greece as in my title for the post, so let’s explain the philosophy stuff! My two ancient philosophers I have always had an interest in are Epictetus who was a Stoic and Epicurus who naturally was …… an Epicurean. So let’s begin with Epictetus and a quote of his:
“Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.”Epictetus
Though he didn’t write anything down the most famous work of Epictetus is his Enchiridion which begins with a most important Stoic maxim which is to distinguish between those things that are within our control and those that are not. The obvious follow on from this is not to be concerned with those things which you cannot control, such as government policy in a pandemic, negative reporting by the media, loss or restriction of freedoms, the timing of when you will receive a vaccine. Just let go, don’t get stressed over them. Spend time focusing on how you are actually living and make the most of it, do your best in all that you do or are able to do, set a high standard for your actions whatever you have chosen to do. (I will return to these maxims in the third and final post.)
My second philosopher from Ancient Greece was Epicurus who certainly “walked the talk” in his “Garden”. His garden was more of a commune, a school, a place where people could live together in happiness. Epicurean philosophy was based on the theory/belief that the moral distinction between good and bad results from the sensations of pleasure and pain. Remember that at this time philosophy was almost entirely concerned with “what is good, and how to live a good life”. It seems natural to me therefore that during 2020 the collective mental health of humanity was at the bad & pain end of the spectrum rather than the good & pleasure end. Unfortunately it has been a misconception to this day that Epicurean philosophy was concerned with pure hedonism or rampant pleasure seeking. It was not! The goal of Epicureanism was actually the absence of pain and suffering: when we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of perfect mental peace (or ataraxia), which is the ultimate goal of human life.
And so it is my contention that the choices and actions of this little group of neighbours coming together was akin to an Epicurean Garden and a Stoic mindset; we stopped worrying about things we couldn’t control and set high standards for many things that we did, especially Keith’s Curry Club and my wine sharing. Our joint activity was a removal of “pain” rather than an immersion in pleasure, not only from the 6pm wine gargles, the helping each other with garden projects, or the Curry Club, but also the many other “in between” things too many to mention. I’m sitting writing this on a Sunday afternoon and I just know that any minute now Keith will send a satirical video he’s found on some U.K. (or EU) politician, and hopefully Ann won’t be sending another one like that of part of her kitchen on fire when she attempted her first Curry! Things will never be the same again!
But …. in the next and final post, where does Buddha fit into avoiding mental health disintegration for Dr C and I during the Covid crisis?
Categories: Philosophy & Psychology