We need to rethink our attitude to stuff going wrong

Vida Simples Brazil, June 2018

(originally published in Portuguese)

One of the problems of being human is our ability to worry. We are probably alone amongst animals in being able to fret about the future and regret the past. And that “What if…” and “If only…” thinking uses so much of our energy, both literally – the brain is a huge consumer of nutrients and oxygen – and metaphorically. No wonder we often feel so exhausted by life.

In our modern, Western world (by which I mean the world of Europe and the Americas, whose cultures have been hugely influenced by European thinking), we tend to think the solution to this – the route to calm, if you like – is to empty our minds of thoughts. And a whole industry has emerged offering to do this. Silent retreats, mindfulness apps, yoga classes with incense and bells, even denatured, consumer-friendly versions of Buddhism hold out the possibility of a tranquil life.

And yet of course we are still anxious – perhaps even more so: if those retreats and apps and chanting don’t seem to deliver tranquility, it can feel like it is our fault for not being “very good” at them. The whole process can all end up a kind of expensive “lose-lose”.

I am not very good at those things. I find meditation boring. I don’t connect well with the practice of mindfulness. And my own religion – Judaism – often seems to do everything it can to avoid being calm. But I have recently found a kind of tranquility in a very unexpected place: pessimism.

Now, as soon as I say that, I know what you are thinking. Hang on, hang on – isn’t pessimism something we are meant to banish from our ways of thinking? Aren’t we meant to go through life smiling, positive, optimistic about outcomes, energised by hope? Isn’t that what pretty much every self-help book has told us to do since self-help books were invented?

Well, yes and no. For sure, especially since what was known as the Positive Thinking movement, which flourished in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, we have had this idea that putting a smile on things will make us feel better about the world. And it’s true that it’s much nicer to go through the day smiling than frowning.

But what soon became painfully clear was that sunny optimism has its limits because, when things go wrong (and they will) it leaves us woefully unprepared, like a toddler whose ice cream has just fallen on the pavement.

Instead, we need to change the way we look at the world. And, to do that we need to go back to a group of Roman philosophers called the stoics, and especially to one of them called Lucius Annaeus Seneca –  Seneca for short.

Seneca was a rich, happy and successful man and yet he was very aware that things could go wrong for him at any moment. In thinking this way, he didn’t see himself as particularly special or unlucky. He felt that that was how life was – for all of us. The world is mostly unpredictable. Problems occur in unexpected ways. And when things go wrong it’s often due to events that are completely beyond our control.

This is hard for us Westerners to accept. Especially because we live in the shadow of the Enlightenment, we feel that we, individually, should be able to bend life to our will. We should, as so many motivational tweets tell us, be able to “seize the moment” and “make a difference to the world”. We should be able to make our lives easier, richer, more fulfilling. And, if we don’t manage to do that, we must have somehow taken a wrong direction or not tried hard enough.

(This, incidentally, is the root of an ugly disdain in many Western societies for people who are homeless or who are addicts. Living a decent life, the argument goes, is just a matter of willpower and they can’t have had enough – an argument that holds until we too find ourselves homeless or addicted and then we realise that the world can be hard to live in through no fault of our own.)

But Seneca wasn’t saying that we should give up on life, on seizing the moment or changing the world. Quite the opposite. He loved life and he was very successful at it. Instead, he said that we should understand that success and failure are both pretty random outcomes, that we have much less control over either of them than we think. And that, instead of assuming everything will go well, we should prepare ourselves psychologically for things to go wrong.

To do this, Seneca proposed that we should start each day with what he called a premeditatio, a premeditation, in which we run through in our minds everything that could possibly go wrong in the day: that important meeting with the boss; that date with the handsome guy from the bar; that difficult conversation with one’s parents.

The idea was not to fall into despair about the day but just to understand that even if all the terrible outcomes we imagined did happen – getting fired, being humiliated, having a blazing row – we would still survive. It might be painful but we’d still be here, we would find a way of continuing with life.

Seneca also recommended tested out this idea in practice. Even though he was rich and lived in luxury, every so often he would sleep on the kitchen floor for a few days and eat stale bread to prove to himself that he could survive like that.

I like to think of this attitude as constructive pessimism, something different from the gloomy, cynical pessimism that bitter people often bring to life. It’s realistic that life often throws us setbacks. It understands that often they are not our fault. And it’s confident that, in most cases, we’ll get through them.

I say “in most cases” because there will be a moment in our lives that we don’t get through, that we die. Death is so sanitised out of our consciousness in our modern lives that we have fallen under a ridiculous illusion that somehow it doesn’t happen. But that was the one thing the stoics thought wasn’t worth worrying about at all. As Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and a great follower of Seneca wrote (and if you haven’t read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, please treat yourself now and buy a second copy for someone you love): “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” Death for most of us will come unexpectedly. Our only job is live well up to that point.

For most of my life, long before I had ever heard of Seneca, I resisted this stoic, pessimistic way of thinking. I was always the optimist, bouncing from project to project with an infectious energy. And, when things turned out well, it was delightful.

The problems came when things failed and I realise now, looking back in my life, that I had no useful way of dealing with those moments, except, very often, to blame myself. I did pick up myself up and start again, many times in fact. But all of that took energy. There’s only a limited number times you can fall flat on your face.

With Seneca I realised that I needed to adjust my outlook on life by turning my optimism (“It’s bound to go right”) into excitement (“I’ll be thrilled if this goes well”). The change is a subtle one but I have found it makes room for a new idea that optimism doesn’t have time for: “It might not work, but life will still go on.”

That little change has brought so much tranquility with it. I am still excited by life and thrilled by its possibilities but I am also less anxious about the chances that things will go wrong. And it hasn’t, I promise – stopped me smiling.