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A Stoic Solution For “What If” Thinking

“If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”- Seneca

The human ability to anticipate and prepare for the future is perhaps our most important and useful survival skill. One of the things that separates the mind of a child or Basic-First-Aid-and-Survival-Skillsadolescent from that of an adult is this ability to realize the consequences of our actions before we act. This, “if I do x, then y or z may happen,” logic is often the most productive kind of thought process a person engages in. Sometimes this ability gets a little out of control and we anticipate, worry about, and often inadvertently create the very things that we fear.

Life events and prior experience creates resilience, enabling a person to survive, and sometimes thrive through, events that they never thought they could cope with. We have the ability to build immunity to life stressors in the same manner that we become immune to diseases and illnesses. When we are exposed to any stressor and survive it, we tend to adapt to similar situations, developing a resilience and strength from this exposure. This adaptation is biological, psychological, and spiritual. As one progresses through life, this becomes a human being’s true strength. There comes a point in life when a person realizes that strength, real strength, is far more than physical.

“He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.” – Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known simply as Seneca, was a Roman Stoic philosopher of the Senecafirst century A.D. He was an influential adviser, tutor, and speech writer for the Roman Emperor Nero. As a practicing Stoic, Seneca was concerned with trying to get the maximum enjoyment from life from the minimum creature comforts, wealth, and technology. Ironically, his own life was anything but minimalist. He was at that time one of Rome’s most influential and wealthy personalities, interacting in society at the highest level of power and influence. Much of his worry, like most humans in an advanced society involves the what if thinking that most of us are familiar with. What if I lost all this? What if I run out of money? What if the roof leaks? What if the stock market crashes? What if I got fired from my job? What if I can’t afford it? These would all be thoughts familiar to Seneca despite his affluence and social standing. In fact, these worries are universal to humans everywhere in the world, despite the wealth, influence, or power that they may have.

Because humans are adaptable, life forces us to adjust to stressors and events that we initially never would believe we could survive. As we age, we overcome illness, losses, pain and suffering. We often lose sight of the fact that to live is to survive. The challenge humans face is to survive these painful life events while thriving.

Seneca spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about the loss of his wealth, wondering how we would survive without the lavish lifestyle that his influence provided him. He decided to practice poverty to prepare himself just in case he lost everything and had to adjust. He explained it to a young student named Lucilius in Letters from a Stoic:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.

Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, — that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practice our strokes on the “dummy”; let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.

So begin, my dear Lucilius, to set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from GEREyour business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty.”

Everyone, even the poorest of any society, worry about what they would do “if.” Taking a good look at the very things that we fear need not increase our fear, rather it may allow us to appreciate what is really important to us. To live is to survive. The challenge of life is to thrive while surviving.

“Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.” – Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

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