In November of 2018 I wrote a post about planning for resiliency. Michael Bungay Stanier
described the importance of planning for failure, looking ahead and anticipating obstacles, and thinking through the ways we could recover from a drastic blow to our plans. It is not easy, but preparing ourselves for hard times will make it more likely that we can successfully manage setbacks when they occur.
This idea seems pretty clear and while we all familiar with saving for a rainy day, there has been relatively little focus in our society on preparing ourselves for other non-financial hardships. Interestingly, the idea from Michael Bungay Stanier is not as new as I thought when I first encountered it. In Letters From a Stoic Seneca wrote, “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.”
Stoic philosophy advises us to take advantage of the times when things are going well so that we can ready ourselves for times when it all falls apart. Rather than simply relaxing and enjoying our comforts, stoicism suggests that we pause, evaluate what is truly needed to live a good life, and consider how we would move on if all our comforts were suddenly stripped from us. It asks us what could go wrong and forces us to think about how we would still move forward, a skill that is hard and gloomy, but has a lot of upside.
I don’t think we need to overwhelmingly focus on death, loss, and hardship. We can still enjoy our comforts and our pleasures, but at least once every day we should stop to consider what things we have, how we live our life, and what is truly important for us. By doing this, we can enjoy our hobbies, relationships, and comforts more fully. By recognizing that things could fall apart we can better appreciate what we have now. Additionally, seeing the potential obstacles before they arrive allows us to be better prepared to overcome them when we must rise to the occasion. We don’t have to be on guard at all moments nor do we need to constantly look over our shoulder for danger, but we should be prepared to work for what is important or move in the direction we want when something shows up to block our path. We will be more successful and sound if we have been considerate and acted accordingly along the way.
In stoic philosophy being able to control your emotions is a central focus since it allows you to make better decisions, interact in a more sociable manner with all people, and to see the world from better perspectives through a process of reflection and controlled decision making. Thinking about our thinking and thought process is how we begin to develop control over our emotions, and it allows us to shift our reactions and feelings to better handle situations. Throughout the collection of his writing in the book, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius provides us with examples of situations where greater awareness, reflection, and emotional temperance can help us become better people. When facing adversity Aurelius writes, “Remember too, an every occasion which leads thee to vexation to apply this principle; not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.” In writing this he shows how a shift in thinking and focus can help us move from feeling anxious or dejected to hopeful and proud. Learning to control our emotions and shift the way we feel can help us move forward and advance in situations where we would rather shrink and shy away.
Aurelius’ quote is very inspirational to me because it shows that we can choose how a negative situation will affect us. We can take a bad situation and always change our perspective to see ways in which we can move forward and take away something positive. I don’t think that Aurelius would encourage us to jump straight to this mindset in any tragedy, we are human and will still feel those emotions, but over time we can move from negative spaces following any tragedy and build better emotional feelings and thoughts.
I find that Marcus Aurelius’ quote above is the most impactful and useful when applied to the small negatives and social situations that we face every day. It is easy to allow small frustrations to build and become major stressors in your life. We all face challenges and annoyances every day which make us bristle despite their petty nature or their small impact on our lives. What we can learn from stoicism is that we have a choice in how we react to these daily annoyances, and we can childishly complain, or we can pause and decide to nobly bear the situation knowing that it does not truly impact our life. Shifting our focus in this way can allow us to be more magnanimous toward people around us, it can improve our health as we drop our blood pressure and avoid fits of rage, and it can also give us the opportunity to present the world with the best version of who we are.