How to Survive a Recession

Stoicism, “Apatheia,” and True Hope

David Clay / 8.2.22

I was an undergraduate in economics when the bottom fell out of the global economy in 2008. Before long I was immersed in studying subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program — it was all distressing, but also fascinating from an academic perspective, as historic economic events unfolded in real time. 

I got a different perspective from one of my professors, who was several decades into his career at that point. We happened to strike up a conversation at a party, during which I made some trenchant observation like, “Pretty crazy what’s going on with the economy.” “Yeah, it is,” replied my professor. Then he chuckled and added, “You know, it’s not really been the best thing for my retirement plans.” I murmured something sympathetically while he changed the topic to lighter fare. 

Even at the time, I was struck by the prospect of having to work perhaps several more years than intended because one’s 401(K) has gone up in smoke. I’ve since gone on to become a stockbroker, which means I’ve had many iterations and variations of that conversation, especially in the first half of this extraordinarily volatile year. Many of my clients have not shared my professor’s aplomb, and I do not blame them. The reality is that, over the 230 years of the American stock market’s existence, stocks have always recovered their value from crashes. The other reality is that this recovery can take considerable time, especially if the broader economy is struggling. 

Which brings us to the present moment, in which the broader economy is … in a very weird place. On the one hand, the United States is experiencing its highest levels of inflation since the early 1980’s, as evidenced at the gas pump, in grocery store aisles, and pretty much everywhere else. Moreover, America has just logged its second consecutive quarter of Gross Domestic Product contraction, widely regarded as the hallmark of a recession. 

On the other hand, we aren’t officially in a recession until the National Bureau of Economic Research declares it to be so — which they haven’t yet done. This is largely due to a strong labor market as evidenced by very low unemployment figures. Moreover, consumer spending, the biggest part of the American economy, is still showing strong. On the other other hand, Americans are expressing pessimism about the economy (largely due to inflation), which could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy if they begin to cut back on spending in anticipation of a recession. 

Whether we are currently in one, or will be in the near future (perhaps), recessions are strange animals from a sociological point of view. Counterintuitively, periods of sustained economic contraction tend to increase the average life span. Multiple studies across several countries confirm the link between economic recession and lower mortality. The biggest factor here seems to be fewer automobile accidents: as more people are thrown out of work, the roads are less crowded and thus fewer people die in crashes. 

Moreover, some studies suggest that unemployment loses some of its stigma during bad economic times. I can confirm this anecdotally. I was unemployed for the first few months of 2019, which happened to be a very good time for the American economy — a fact that added an extra element of shame to my predicament. I’m certain unemployment would have been easier to endure had we been in a recession. Struggling economically isn’t as hard if you’re not the only one. 

At the same time, it’s sad but unsurprising that recessions are also linked with higher rates of suicide. Even if everyone’s doing it, struggling economically is still very hard. One of the (many) things that makes it so hard is the feeling that you’ve lost agency; that is, that you are at the mercy of enormous, impersonal forces that render your best efforts to create a good life for yourself and your loved ones pretty much irrelevant. Again, perception is often reality here: just like the economy goes into recession because people think that it will, if you feel helpless or overmatched, your motivation to keep trying takes a huge hit. 

In the face of such disasters, both actual and potential, the ancient Stoics counseled the cultivation of “apatheia.” This is not quite the same thing as our contemporary term “apathy,” i.e., not caring about anything. Rather, apatheia is an inner tranquility that comes from conquering the “passions,” those powerful feelings that seek to control our behavior. The doctrine of apatheia flows from the Stoic belief that the highest human good is outstanding moral virtue. Ironically, the passions make it seem that we can gain (or are in danger of losing) something valuable, while in reality they destroy the only thing that is truly valuable: our virtue. A successful life depends on conforming our transitory emotions to reality, even and especially in the face of adverse events — like losing your job or watching your retirement account get decimated.

Stoicism was extremely popular in the first century Roman Empire when the apostle Paul wrote his letters to the fledgling churches of the Mediterranean basin. Like the Stoics, Paul discounted his own sufferings, but he took a different approach in doing so: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). Paul is less interested in calm resignation amidst various disasters, and far more interested in facing the world and its vagaries with hope.

This hope is an objective, external thing. Our emotions lead us astray, as in Stoicism, but unlike in Stoicism, they do not thereby destroy that hope. Paul tells the Colossian believers that their lives are already hidden in Christ (Col 3:3). In some mysterious way, we are even now seated in the heavenly places with Christ, such that our future is already present (Eph 2:6).

Which is not to say that recessions (and the like) cannot deal some truly nasty psychological blows. They can. It would be lovely if our hope in Christ always produced inner tranquility — indeed, it really should (Phil 4:7) — but experience tells us otherwise. But our good future is secure whether or not we feel or even act like it is secure at any given moment. Our emotions can cause recessions and they can impel us to behave unvirtuously. But they can never ruin our future.

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