We live in a world where we’re told thinking and worrying are the same.
We’re not allowed to think about the things in our life that won’t go our way. To think about it might mean you’re worried about it, and we can’t have that. Worry is unhealthy. We need to be positive! Don’t fret so much about not making ends meet, finding a new job, dying. You’ll cross that bridge when—or even if—you come to it.
But where do these people go when the bad things really happen? Vanished. Whatever is going on in your life might bring them down. Or maybe they’re telling you it’s really not that bad, but can’t really offer why it isn’t. Where did everyone’s earlier goodwill go?
The Stoics have something to say of this.
First, worry is wrong. Worry will not help you out. But before people give themselves a pat on the back for getting at least that, the Stoics would say that worrying about bad things happening and thinking about bad things happening are two different beasts. Worry is a stifling emotion that weakens us and potentially prevents us from doing something. Thinking is, well, not an emotional action by itself, though if you’re not careful, it can lead to worry or, perhaps worse, overconfidence in one’s abilities.
But why should we think about bad things in the first place? What’s the use? And if there is a use, how can we prevent thinking about bad things from turning into worry?
The why is simple enough: contemplating bad things before they happen makes it easier to handle when bad things happen. Never consider the possibility of being broke and you’ll be shocked the first time you overdraw your account. Think about it every so often and you’ll know that it was a possibility and won’t be as shocked if it happens.
We’d do well to keep in mind that negative visualization isn’t so much about preventing us from feeling bad should something come up, though that may be possible. Rather, it’s about taking the shock out of it. It’s sort of like boxing: just because you learn to take a punch doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. You’ll just recover, if not faster, at least better.
Okay, but how do we prevent worry?
This, too, is simple. We don’t have to think about bad things all the time. When you first start out, it might be best to do this exercise once or twice a week, perhaps in the morning. Just run through all the things that could happen that morning. Don’t dwell on one thought or another, just keep going. When you get good at that, increase the amount of days you do it and the number of times you do it. When that’s done and you’re ready, start thinking about some heavier things like relationships and death.
Whoa, what? Death?
All right, I have to admit, this one really isn’t fun, but yes, the Stoics encourage us to think about not only our deaths, but the death of loved ones. In fact, one of the earliest examples of negative visualization is by Epictetus. Every time we kiss our child or spouse—even when we say goodbye to a friend—we should remind ourselves that this could very be the last time we can do that. Death spares no one.
Sure it seems bleak, and at first it may cause you to be downcast. You might even shudder at the thought. But keep up with it and you’ll find something strange. That shuddering gets weaker. The sadness doesn’t last as long. And sometimes, just sometimes, you can get away with thinking about your end without even slowing down.
So, what, all I get out of this is less shock? That seems hardly worth it.
It may seem like a lot of work just for a little less shock. But there’s more to it than just that. By thinking of the possibility of the worst that can happen, you appreciate more when things don’t. Have a prepaid phone that barely keeps up with everyone’s I-droid? Think about all the bad things that could happen to it, and you might just realize that it’s only a phone, just like everyone else has. Heck, you might even marvel that you don’t have the stupid thing yelling at you to check Facebook or your email. You might even joke that it has too many features: not only is it a phone, it has an alarm clock!
Let’s go back to Epictetus’s example. What if we realized that our friend or loved one could not be with us tomorrow? We can’t even say they’ll be with us for the next 30 seconds. Knowing that, how much love do you think will be in that kiss? How much more you’ll mean it when you say you’ll miss your friend? You might not always be more attentive and mindful of such things, but you’ll be more so than the person who thinks their loved ones will always be there.
There’s something you’re not saying.
Okay, so I know I kept saying that we should think of bad things, but a Stoic wouldn’t say “bad” things. Rather, they’d say they were “undesirable” things. While it might not seem to make a difference, keep in mind that just because things don’t go our way, the Stoics would say that doesn’t make it bad. Early Stoics—and perhaps modern theistic Stoics—thought the gods would challenge a good person more, not as punishment, but because they wouldn’t want us to go soft. Our ability to endure made us almost godlike, Seneca even saying we might we surpass them, as the gods don’t have to endure any misfortune while mankind can overcome it.
For some of us not so highly thinking of godliness, it’s still good to remind yourself that, once again, just because something doesn’t go our way, doesn’t make it bad. We can work with whatever befalls us. Remember the words of Marcus Aurelius: life is more like wrestling than dancing. Stepping into the ring with Life is the price we pay for being born. We can either cower and try to avoid everything “bad”—which never works—or learn to take our hits and grow stronger. We might not like it, but that doesn’t stop us from being the best human we can be.