The Stoic 5.3: Anticipated misfortune

“Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

(Seneca)

In the previous post I suggested that there’s no point in becoming distressed today because we think something might distress us later. That just increases the misfortune. Indeed, once we realise that most of the things people worry about never actually happen it becomes clear that it’s possible to ruin the quality of an entire life with pointless and unnecessary anxiety. If we expect next Friday afternoon to be distressing that’s one thing. But let’s not destroy today as well.

In the Christian tradition this seems to be what Jesus meant when he said

“….. do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

(Matthew 6:34)

I have long believed that Jesus (or whoever wrote the Gospels after his death) must have been familiar with the earlier works of stoic philosophers, there are just too many such coincidences for it to be otherwise in my opinion.

But it’s important to be clear. Freedom from distress by avoiding the emotional content of anticipation (avoiding worry, in other words) isn’t the same as avoiding anticipation altogether. On the contrary, we must anticipate. In fact the stoics advised us to go further than most worriers do in our anticipation – but we do so without distress. We do it as an intellectual exercise. We visualise loss and misfortune and we imagine how we might cope with the worst. On the one hand his can prepare us for what tragedies may befall us. On the other it helps us to understand and appreciate what we already have.

“Take full account of what Excellencies you possess, and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not.”

(Marcus Aurelius, meditations)

This is one of the ways that stoics are able to maintain emotional equilibrium when things go wrong for them. They understand that all things in life are transient and they prepare for the changes in advance – they are always prepared to ‘give back’, to ‘return’.

  1. “Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but “I have returned it”…….

“But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travellers view a hotel.

  1. If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: “If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have no income; if I don’t correct my servant, he will be bad.” For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquility, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.”

(Epictetus, The Enchiridion)

Stoics visualise the loss of the things they hold dear, They make a point of contemplating death, material losses, homelessness, hunger, injury and illness, unemployment, grief – all the unfortunate things that might happen for them. And then they imagine how they might deal with them. There are several advantages to this:

  1. Increased contentment with the things we have;
  2. Increased awareness of the things we need to od to maintain and improve our circumstances;
  3. Significant reduction in distress if the worst does happen because we’re prepared;
  4. Clear direction to deal with misfortune if it does occur;
  5. Freedom from anticipatory anxiety (worrying about what might happen).

Of course that doesn’t mean stoics need to go around reflecting upon miserable possibilities all the time. That wouldn’t do at all. But every so often, once or twice a week perhaps it’s a good idea to stop and think about what we have (health, possessions, abilities, relationships, status etc) and how it might be taken away. I promise you – make this a habit and you’ll enjoy life a great deal more. You’ll also be much more resourceful and better prepared to deal with tragedy.

Anxiety 3 stage process

In a different, less obviously philosophical context I talk to anxious, worried people about the ‘three stage plan’ for dealing with anxiety. I’ve used it for years with good effect. Once again it’s an idea stolen from the stoics. This is how I described it in one of my mental health Ebooks:

“We can also help people to plan, both should the worst happen and also how to prevent it. This becomes a fairly straightforward three-point process:

  1. What’s the worst that could happen?
  2. If it does happen how can you survive it?
  3. Now we know you can survive the worst what can you (or we) do to make sure it doesn’t happen?

Whatever else we do we must be honest, rational and realistic. Only then can we understand whether or not the anxiety, the perception of threat is justified. If it is then we can begin to work on making the situation safe with all the facts that we need. If it isn’t justified (if it’s what Freud called inappropriate anxiety) then we can have the confidence to work on activities designed to help the person to face the thing they fear.”

(Stuart Sorensen – Mental health and social care p.20)

When we take gratitude, negative visualisation and awareness of the eternal now (see yesterday’s post) together we have a powerful blueprint for dealing with anxiety and enhancing enjoyment of life as a whole. But don’t just take my word for it. Give it a go and see what happens.

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