My Resolution for 2022
Like the Stoics, we can both make peace with deep disappointments and keep fighting for our values.
by Yascha Mounk
At the end of 2020, the world looked bleak, but there was a lot of reason to hope that 2021 would turn out to be a lot better. A second COVID wave was rapidly spreading around the globe—but life-saving vaccines were beginning to be rolled out. Donald Trump was still spreading dangerous lies from the White House—but Joe Biden seemed poised to undo much of his damage and move the country beyond intense rancor. And dictators like Vladimir Putin were still trying to sow chaos—but the free world looked as though it was about to regain its strength and resolve.
This has made 2021 a year of bitter disappointments. As its last day rolls in, the state of the world seems much more indeterminate than most might have predicted 12 months ago. Dictators seem even more emboldened than they were in the past, with Putin stationing 100,000 troops at Russia’s western border, apparently threatening an invasion of Ukraine. The United States looks more divided than ever, with Trump still enjoying the fierce loyalty of the Republican Party and a significant slice of the American electorate believing that the election was stolen. Most bitterly of all, the pandemic simply refuses to end, with the Omicron variant once again threatening lives and disrupting holiday plans.
2022 thus increasingly looks like a hinge point that will help determine what the new normal will look like. Will the new normal include war and military conquest in the middle of Europe? Will the new normal entail ever more democratic backsliding in the United States? And will the new normal be dominated by a terrible virus and the continual strain it exacts on social bonds?
What makes these developments all the more worrying is that so few of them seem to be under the control of democratic leaders, much less ordinary people. If they want to avoid a complete erosion of the prohibition on territorial conquest by military means, one of the most fundamental parts of Europe’s postwar order, NATO and the European Union must finally get serious about deterring Russia—but even if they do, Putin may choose a bloody war and occupation. If Democrats want to stop Republicans from taking control of Congress in 2022, and from setting the stage for a comeback by Donald Trump, they need to unite around the popular parts of their program and stop embracing deeply unpopular cultural stances—but even if they do, they are likely to take a drubbing in upcoming midterm elections. And if we finally want to put an end to this pandemic, our public health systems need to become much more innovative by reducing bureaucratic hurdles, green-lighting challenge trials, and speeding up the deployment of booster vaccines—but even if we do everything right, the spread of anti-vaxxer sentiment and the arrival of even more dangerous variants of the virus might extend the pandemic for another twelve months or more.
So what should we resolve to do as we enter 2022?
Like many people during times of uncertainty over the last two millennia, I have found myself rereading the great texts of the Stoic tradition. For many of its adherents, Stoic philosophy involved an exhortation to act in the world. We have a responsibility to do what we can to live up to the duties imposed by our offices and social positions—for parents to raise their children, for teachers to educate their pupils, and for all of us to help look after our fellow citizens (for, in a true democracy, citizenship, too, is a kind of office which bestows its own expectations and responsibilities).
But even more fundamentally, Stoic philosophy offers a set of instructions for how to make the most of life while accepting that we are not in full command of our fate. In times of deep uncertainty, such as ours, we must be determined both to live up to our duties and to enjoy what is good in the world despite our knowledge that it may be gone tomorrow. That aspiration stands at the core of my resolutions for 2022.
Politically, it means that I hope to strike a precarious balance between two seemingly paradoxical goals: I want to do what I can to further the values to which I am most committed, while freeing myself from the ever-present anxiety about their likely fate.
I am a committed philosophical liberal. To an extent that some Stoic philosophers may have considered unwise, I care about the maintenance and realization of values that are not under my direct control. I consider it my duty to stand up for them as best I can (and I hope that you will join me in that fight).
But to be happy and effective, I cannot allow my political engagement to determine my well-being. If I allowed every new poll or every new spat on social media to drive how I feel, it wouldn’t just make me miserable; it would also distract me from pursuing the activities that have the best chance of, somehow, making a bit of a difference. On my reading of Stoic philosophy, which admittedly takes some interpretative liberties, its most important upshot boils down to: “Do what you can to improve the world—but be at peace with whatever catastrophe might befall you, your loved ones, or the causes you care for.”
With the world still stuck in the later—or perhaps, if we get unlucky, the middle—stages of a terrible pandemic, this political disposition also has an equivalent in the personal realm. I will continue to do what I can to help all of us get control of the pandemic by getting my booster shot, informing people about any risks posed by future strains, and taking sensible measures to reduce transmission. But I will also try to make my social life and my willingness to plan for the future less dependent on the latest news about COVID. If 2022 turns out to be the year in which the virus truly becomes endemic, we all will need to learn how to live with it—making the most of being human without either refusing to accept our frailty or becoming indifferent to the fate of our compatriots.
Yascha Mounk is the Founder of Persuasion.
I think this captures perfectly the best way to approach a very difficult time. Be engaged and informed, do your best to make the country and the world a better place, and at the same time don't become totally obsessed by what you can't change to the point of despair, go on and live your life to the fullest.
This essay was exactly what I needed to read tonight going into the new year. Thank you, Yashca.