A lesson I learned from the Stoic tradition
is a practice that, in hindsight of 2020, our culture might want to collectively consider as a staple of our mental domain.
Though one must beware, this is not a practice that we would normally gravitate toward. In fact, the forthcoming suggestion is an active recollection that we often intend to avoid at all costs. For some people, where trauma and chaos are already too real, it should not be utilized. But, contrary to common belief, it is a practice that might actually be beneficial.
The Macabre & the Mind
It’s mid-December and the winter’s darkness had set in around our home allowing for the dim lights of a Christmas tree to give that wonderful vibe that we tend to enjoy. My children go to bed and, as is custom, my spouse and I embrace the daunting task of wrapping Christmas presents. In the rhythm of cutting, taping, and scurrying the strange texture of wrapping paper over material goods intended to bring joy, my mind wanders.
Full disclosure, I have a relatively macabre mind.
There is an instant in the quiet drudgery of wrapping where I begin to envision someone breaking into my house. It’s not a real event, but it also feels as if it exists in the present. I see the backdoor forcibly open in my head and, immediately, my heart rate increases — both in my visualization and in reality. It is then that I begin a mental process that is, unfortunately, quite frequent in my existential dissonance. I begin imaginatively walking through what I would do. I consider the aspects of the room. I process the exact positioning of my body and where I would anticipate being able to move by the time an intruder could make a move. I contemplate the various scenarios of potential weapons they might have and how I might react. I conjure the chaos that would unfold and run through scenarios of how I might interact with the ill-timed guest and what I would need to do to keep everyone in my home safe. The scenario continues to replay with alternative trajectories and, after several minutes have passed, I finish the last line of tape, place the present under the tree, and go about the rest of the evening.
Either something is tremendously wrong with me or…well…something is probably wrong with me.
Also true, however, is that a derivative of my aberrancy beckons potential benefits.
Alas, what I endured in those moments of Christmas present wrapping is actually a recommended practice within the Stoic tradition referred to as rehearsing the worst-case scenario.
An Introduction to the Practice
If you are well-versed in Stoicism, you should not be surprised that such a practice is recommended. Stoic philosophy is quite concerned about preparing for times of crisis during times of solace — “Fortify yourself while things are going well to be ready for when they might not” is an appropriate refrain of Stoic thought. A philosophical school that embraces the misfortunes of an uncertain world, encourages fasting and self-deprivation as ways to promote transformation, and emphasizes that much of your life is outside of your control assembles as a tradition primed to offer an excursion toward what you fear the most.
The concept is simple — you are more likely to react well to a terrible moment or event if you have prepared fortifications that will not be available to you in the heat of a moment. The sentiment suggests that while you are in control, you rehearse various “worst-case scenarios” so that you won’t recoil when potential suffering becomes a reality.
When I invite such eerie darkness into my purview, the worst contemplation I can consider is the loss of my spouse. I have to admit, no part of this consideration is enjoyable and there are certainly situations where I would not recommend entering such imaginative darkness. Yet, whether it is the loss of a person, the loss of a job, a cataclysmic sociological nightmare, or some other unfortunate turn of events, a plethora of benefits occur when I venture to the existential abyss.
Certainly, there are the oft-quoted Stoic qualities:
- Forcibly enacting change through intentional stress, difficulty, and discomfort by triggering our internal survival instincts and inflicting a sort of hardened minimalism that our age of comfort protects us from.
- Training our physical and mental disposition for unanticipated possibilities of misfortune (and doing so while we are enjoying good fortune).
- Putting ourselves in intentional situations which we are prone to avoid and, therefore, offering a sort of training that we won’t be able to build up in a moment of crisis.
- Allowing us to admit the reality of loss and, hopefully, nurturing a framework where our existence is not dependent on those things which we are not guaranteed.
- Causing a sense of desperation — again, when such desperation is not necessary — so as to prepare oneself for moments yet to (potentially) come.
I, for one, hope to never have to experience an armed intruder or the tragic death of my most intimate, interdependent relationship. Yet, despite the aforementioned benefits of rehearsing the worst-case scenario, I have also found the most astute benefits have less to do with the mental and physical preparation resulting from the process.
And this, fellow sojourners of this difficult experience called humanity, is why I would recommend this practice — especially after the year which we have just endured.
There are three primary benefits and they are as follows:
The first has already been mentioned and examined. Rehearsing the worst-case scenario prepares you for its potential occurrence. You use the time you have now to equip the mental, emotional, and physical domains of your identity for something that, if it happens, will be catastrophic.
At the least, when such an event happens, you are more ready for its unfolding than you would have been otherwise.
This, however, while the most obvious benefit, is not the primary one.
Hopefully, the likelihood of a particular calamity is small. As a result, why spend precious moments of your life ruminating on terrible things that may not even happen? I suppose it is fair to critique this approach as a bit doomsday-ish. But my suggestion is not that we sit around mentally fabricating terrible situations just to be prepared for them like 1960’s bomb shelter drills.
In my experience, the primary benefit of rehearsing the worst-case scenario is that doing so nurtures a particular gratefulness for the person or thing in question — because imagining such potential loss or difficulty also forces you to acknowledge that the loss or difficulty hasn’t happened.
When I consider a tragic departure of my spouse or the destruction of my existential reality or a violent unfolding of strangers in my home, I am invited to appreciate the fact that, at least in my immediate experience, I do not have to confront such difficulty. In response, I am inclined to relish what I have while I still have it. The cultural trope exists that one does not know what they have until it is gone. This practice allows us to gain mental-emotional benefits without a disastrous reality.
The last benefit of rehearsing the worst-case scenario is both more simple and more complex than the heading implies. The simplicity is that in recognizing that a particular misfortune hasn’t occurred and in being more prepared, a worst-case scenario will not be unexpectedly devastating (even though it will still be devastating) and it will also not be a lingering uncertainty thrusting its doom upon you. Especially as we find renewed joy for the present — which is absent of the gloomy possibilities — we feel more at home in an uncertain world. Fear is decreased.
But there is more going on with the decrease of fear and, as you probably guessed, the Stoics have an additional gift to give.
Their gift is the sentiment that every component of your life is not owed to you. Your home, your friends, your family, your experiences, your own breath — you did not create these from nothing. You are the beneficiary of the givenness of the world. Which means it is not yours, per se.
The reason this can potentially decrease fear is that all of those things, those people, and those experiences are not, therefore, in your control. There is a teaching of a Stoic named Cicero that explores this at length. He says that one ought to consider something and bear in mind not to be disturbed when it is broken or taken away — because nothing you love is your very own. It is like longing for a fig in winter. As a result, a common Stoic example of this is the loss of a loved one; and the remedy they encourage in response to such tragedy is that what was given as a gift has been taken back.
What this does is diminishes the power we assume we have over the world — a good perspective that our culture should consider, in general — and it decreases fear because you ought not to worry so heavily about that which you have no control over. This does not mean that you have to enjoy the loss — certainly mourning is still necessary — but if you can only control what you can control, it alters how we consider what we hold at the moment. We give attention to what we have in our midst, we celebrate the givenness of the world, but we have a proper sense of proportion to see that there is no posture of holding so tightly that will prevent any kind of loss.
Alas, rehearsing the worst-case scenario allows us to hold things, but to hold them loosely.