A Shift in Perception Transforms Reality

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love ...”
                                                                                                                                                  -Marcus Aurelius

As I look at 2020, I have very conflicting feelings. On one hand, the year was horribly tragic for many people who lost loved ones and businesses. My heart goes out to the nearly two million people worldwide who have lost their lives to COVID and their grieving families, and to the tens of millions in this country now suffering from economic hardship.

On the other hand, the worst that many people, including me, have suffered from this virus, has been annoying inconvenience. Thankfully, almost all my relatives and friends are in this category. Yes, we cannot see our extended family and friends; yes, we have not been able to travel or go to concerts or sporting events. The events of last year led me to an important personal, philosophical breakthrough. This was the year that I embraced Stoic philosophy.

Stoic philosophers have a valuable practice they call “negative visualization.” When bad things happen to you, before you get engulfed by sadness and self-pity, realize that it could have been a lot worse. For those of us who were only indirectly impacted by the virus, 2020 was just a mediocre year, especially if you compare it to what a generation or two before us suffered in Europe in the late 1930s through the mid-1940s. Stoicism helped me put 2020 in a broader, historical context, and helped me compare what happened, which was bad, to what could have happened and how much worse it could have been, at least for me personally.

2020 will go into our memory banks as one of the worst years of our lifetimes for my and my kids’ generations (hopefully, it doesn’t get worse than this).

Actually, historians think that the worst year suffered by our civilization was 536 AD. The eruption of an Icelandic volcano sent large volumes of ash into the atmosphere, blanketing the whole Earth in smog and blocking the sun. It plunged many parts of the world into darkness for two years. It also changed the Earth’s climate, lowering temperatures, killing crops, causing devastating starvation, and sending the world economy into a depression. If this was not enough suffering, the bubonic plague then paid a visit, wiping out 100 million people, almost half of the world's population.

When I visualize the whole planet in 536 AD or Europe engulfed in WWII, 2020 suddenly looks like a year that just messed a little with my social habits.
Also, unlike our ancestors, today we are armed with fruits of the technological progress from the last 150 years. If 536 AD were replayed today, it would not be fun, but we are now so much better prepared to deal with what Mother Nature can throw at us.

Also think what would have happened to the global economy if COVID had hit us two decades earlier, before technological advancements – faster networks, the cloud, software tools – allowed most white collar workers to continue slaving away in the comfort of their basements. Think about vaccine development, which used to take years and in some cases decades, but this time around took just months.

Stoics have another piece of advice for us. Epictetus said, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.” It is amazing how much impact “the view we take” has on our wellbeing. Though you cannot change reality, you can do plenty with how you interpret it and thus how you feel.

Instead of focusing on all the insignificant and petty ways I was inconvenienced in 2020, I focus on the fact that I got to spend more time with my kids, especially my 19-year-old son, Jonah, who otherwise would have been in college. He is living at home, taking classes online, and will go to CU Boulder in-person in the fall. I am also thankful that I got to spend a lot more time with my daughters.

The virus motivated me to double down on my health. In addition to working out twice a week with a trainer (I started this about three years ago), in December I started rowing 15 minutes a day in the comfort of my living room (I’ll gradually take it up to 30 minutes). In 2020 I also focused on mental health. I meditate and walk in the park for about an hour every single day.

The virus has made me appreciate little things even more. As I am writing this, my six-year-old daughter, Mia Sarah, has woken up, come downstairs, and hugged me. She does this daily – my very favorite moment of the day.

Maybe our interpretation of things does change reality after all.

Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA
Student of Life