We just don’t know for certain what is around the corner as we go about living our lives. When times are rosy, we naturally let our guard down in the absence of immediate threats to our wellbeing.
“We are like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil Fate may have presently in store for us — sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason.”- Arthur Schopenhauer
But unlike the pessimism of Schopenhauer, the stoics were optimists. The stoic mind expects circumstances to change swiftly, especially for those circumstance heading in a terrible direction. When everything seems to be peaceful be sure that mischief is not absent but only asleep, be mindful of the fact that life can change from something akin to ‘smelling the roses’ to ‘up shit creek without a paddle’ pretty bloody quickly. It’s by no means a pessimistic exercise, but rather a recommendation for us to recognise that since ‘bad’ things happen to other living things, they may happen to us also and we should premeditate on it.
This premeditation of adversity (Latin: Premeditatio malorum), is neatly summed up by this quote from Seneca:
“For by foreseeing anything that can happen as though it will happen he will soften the onslaught of all his troubles, which present no surprises to those who are ready and waiting for them, but fall heavily on those who are careless in the expectation that all will be well.”
In a nutshell: rather than fear oncoming adversity; prepare for it.
To say ‘I expect adversity to visit me unannounced’ is the essence of this attitude towards living every day. By this preparedness we have cultivated, saying towards ever misfortune ‘I expected this’, we lessen the impact delivered by fate’s sucker punch. Just like that wild boar in Aesop’s fables ‘sharpening his tusks busily against the stump of a tree’; in times of peace we should prepare for war because if adversity has been premeditated beforehand, its blow will be gentler when it comes charging at us.
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”
There is much to premediate on the level of our personal life, but also on events outside of our control that may invade the sphere of our everyday lives. I read this sentence written by Seneca: ‘Misfortune may snatch you away from your country, or your country away from you, may banish you into some wilderness.’ Seneca himself knew all about banishment as he himself was exiled to Corsica in AD 41 by Emperor Claudius and the modern equivalent to exile would be being thrown out of our house and banished to live homeless on the streets – how would you premediate on this? Anyway, immediately after this sentence was this: ‘These very surroundings in which the masses suffocate may become a wilderness.’ And with this I thought, never before has turning a lively human society into a state of nature been easier than in our age of weapons of mass destruction.
Whatever the adversity is, it may help us to pretend that it already happened. We can then get the simulated feel of what that situation would be like. This getting the sense of familiarisation is much preferred because we rather get familiarised with a mental simulation than with the having to get familiar in the face of the actual reality without simulation.
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”