The Stoic Attitude: Being Prepared for What Is and What Can Be

Seneca’s advice is to prepare for both

People walking on flooded street
Image by J Lloa from Pixabay

Consider these two quotes from Seneca the Younger in Letters from a Stoic:

“Whatever can happen at any moment can happen today.”

“Just as I know that anything is capable of happening so also do I know that it’s not bound to happen. So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.”

The Stoics, Seneca being one of them, trained themselves to manage the tension between what can be and what is. In a sense, this attitude toward life’s events is what we’ve come to refer to -in ordinary parlance- as a stoic attitude.

You know, the kind of people who remain calm and collected when others whine, cry out in disbelief, or crumble to pieces in the face of big challenges. 

Think of the woman who would be pleased with a job offer but wouldn’t wallow in despair if she was passed on, or the man whose reaction wouldn’t be that different whether his house flooded or was spared when the river overflowed its banks.

Also, just as “whatever can happen at any moment can happen today,” whatever can happen to anyone can happen to us.

Isn’t it peculiar, then, how we go through life acting as if we’re exempt from certain misfortunes? When a given misfortune befalls someone else, we have no problem accepting it can happen to them.

However, if the same misfortune befall us, we react with denial.

In my own life, there’s no better example of this contradiction than my son’s cognitive disability or mental retardation -however you want to call a lower than 70 IQ along with deficits in adaptive functioning.

It never occurred to me that other parents would question that their kids were intellectually disabled. It happens -to other parents’ children.

Eventually I got over my denial. However, it’s puzzling to me, in hindsight, that it took me years to do so.

The advice to “look for the best” but prepare for “the opposite” is good advice, and need not be taken to mean that we should all be doomsday preppers. It’s more of an attitude toward life.

To me, it suggests that we always have a choice in how we react to difficult circumstances. Will we react as if the universe is conspiring against us in particular? Or will we be humble enough to accept that we’re all vulnerable human beings?

Day 14 of 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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