The Coronavirus and Making Friends With Your Devil
A friend of mine, an economist and investment analyst, sent me a note saying that he is “expecting” the coronavirus pandemic to lead to absolute disaster, both in terms of public health and the economy. He may be right. He may be wrong. So I didn’t think it would help him if I countered his expectations with evidence to the contrary. What good would that do? It wouldn’t change his mind about his expectations. It would only change his view about my perspicacity.
So I sent him an abbreviated version of the following – an essay I’ve written a dozen times in response to a dozen different scenarios in the past 20 years.
Whenever I realize that I’m worried about something that might happen in the future, I use a 4-step technique that I call “Making Friends With Your Devil.” I started working on it about 30 years ago, and have refined it and strengthened it along the way.
Before I explain how I use it now, I’ll give you an idea of how I developed it.
Sometimes K and I would plan something – something as simple as going to the zoo on the weekend or as complicated as taking a European vacation. When we were young and single, such plans were rarely thwarted. But when we had kids, thwarting was less the exception than the rule.
When it happened, I would get angry. I would feel miserable. I was not pleasant to be around. K was almost never like that. She seemed to take disappointment with a grain of salt. She would shrug it off and move on. I was jealous of that and determined to learn how to do it.
For insight into why I was getting so upset and a clue about how I could deal with these inevitable letdowns with more equanimity, I looked into two schools of philosophy: Stoicism (not Zeno or Epictetus but Marcus Aurelius and Seneca) and Zen (secondary sources).
I won’t quote any of that stuff here. You know it as well as I. But I will say that I found it helpful.
I was getting upset, I decided, because I had a strong habit of attaching myself emotionally to every decision I made about what I was going to do. And the solution was to detach myself from that emotional attachment the minute I made any decision about the future.
If, for example, K and I made plans to go to the beach on Sunday, I would – the moment we agreed that we would do it – imagine waking up on Sunday to find that it was rainy and cold. I would imagine myself saying, “Okay, let’s go to a movie instead.” And then I would allow myself to be a little bit attached to that secondary plan. I would imagine myself enjoying a movie.
It worked. It virtually eliminated all emotional disappointment when things didn’t happen as I had planned. Sometimes, in fact, I was almost happy about it, because I had already imagined enjoying Plan B.
This little trick served me well over the years when dealing with minor disappointments. And eventually, I was able to springboard from it to dealing with larger issues – preparing myself for the worst sorts of disappointments in every area of my life.
Now, for example, whenever I make a major business or financial investment, I do all the normal calculations of possible outcomes, from best to worst. But I resist the urge to dwell on the best, which, I have learned, almost never materializes. Instead, I focus on the worst-case scenario.
When it comes to investing, the worst-case scenario will usually be losing every penny. So I imagine myself losing my entire investment. And I either get comfortable with that, or I hold onto my money.
The Four Easy-to-Hard Steps
Okay, that was the history of the technique. Now, here’s how to do it…
Step One: Imagine all the possibilities – from best to worst. Once you’ve identified a worst-case scenario, imagine the details, the specific problems you could be facing. In the case of the current pandemic, the problems might range from running out of toilet paper (minor problem) to running short of food (big problem) to defending your property (bigger problem) to (worst possible problem) someone you love contracting the virus and dying from it.
Step Two: Imagine the actions you would take. Decide how you would deal with each one of these potential problems. (Don’t spend a moment thinking about what you might have done leading up to where you are now. Focus on the future.) Imagine the specific decisions you would make and the specific actions you would take.
Step Three: Imagine how you would feel. For the less-severe problems, it should be easy to imagine yourself acting calmly but with purpose, intelligently but with compassion. But with the serious problems, this will be more difficult. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, the hardest thing to imagine would be how you would feel if a loved one contracted the virus and died from it.
Step Four: Make friends with your devil. This is the most difficult step (until you get used to doing it). It’s part Stoicism, part exposure therapy. Allow yourself to experience the worst-case scenario by imagining that it has already happened. It will provoke angst, anger, and great sadness. But imagine yourself getting through it. Imagine yourself accepting this outcome and accepting it. Acceptance lessens the anger and the grief. Imagine those bad feelings diminishing. You are searching for a sense of peace – and that is what you will find.
If this sounds preachy, please forgive me. Preaching is what I do.
And before you accuse me of hypocrisy, I will say what I always say when so accused: Were it not for hypocrisy, I’d have no good advice to give at all.