by Andrew Rattray
What makes you nervous?
What worries you?
We all have something that ties our guts up in knots when we think about having to do it, don’t we? Life is full of these situations, where we find ourselves concerned about what the future holds. Especially now, with the ever-negative deluge of the 24 hours news cycle, it’s hard to shore ourselves up against the uncertainties of what’s to come. So, what can we do? Well, as ever, we can turn to the wisdom of the ancients to guide us. The Stoic practice of Premeditatio Malorum, or premeditating evil, was developed for precisely these paralysing worries. It’s a tool to help us bolster our defences against the spectre of an uncertain future, and remind ourselves that we have the ability to overcome any challenges we might face.
Premeditatio Malorum simply refers to the visualisation of negative outcomes. It’s the mental preparation for the worst that might happen; a way to build mental fortitude in the face of uncertainty. To give you an idea of the technique in practice, let us turn to Epictetus, one of the most prominent Stoic philosophers of all time. When considering how to visualise negative outcomes, he states in his work, the Enchiridion:
“When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, represent to yourself the incidents usual in the bath—some persons pouring out, others pushing in, others scolding, others pilfering. And thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go to bathe and keep my own will in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action.”
That’s all well and good, I hear you say, but how exactly does this help us? Well, Epictetus says it himself: by mentally preparing ourselves, we are able to maintain our will in a virtuous manner. In other words, we are able to deal with these difficult situations, and keep our cool in the moment. Great, but how does this process help alleviate the anxiety we face about these looming situations? Isn’t this just a form of pre-emptive worrying? Well, not really.
Strength through Wisdom
Seneca, the Roman statesman and philosopher, summarised the ideas behind the practice in one of his many letters, writing:
“If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives, “comes in a new and sudden form,” and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty. This is proved by the fact that men endure with greater courage, when they have once become accustomed to them, the things which they had at first regarded as hardships. Hence, the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance.”
What Seneca is saying is that being caught off-guard by negative situations is always worse. By exercising negative visualisation of eventualities ahead of time, we allow ourselves to be ready if they happen, and remove the sting of surprise. That readiness also removes some of the fear and anxiety we face about the future. We no longer need to worry about what we will do, for example, if we find people jostling and splashing us in the swimming pool as Epictetus suggests.
This allows us to cultivate resilience. We can trust in ourselves that we have the fortitude and virtue to weather whatever the future has in store for us. Building this trust in ourselves in turn helps to soothe our worries. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and another prominent Stoic, captured this idea beautifully in his Meditations writing:
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
The strength of endurance is already within us, for we have already endured many events that were once uncertain futures, and so the future that now looms is nothing more than another step on a path we are already well travelled in.
Memento Mori… But In A Good Way
Now, let me take a moment to address the often-levelled criticism of Stoic practitioners; that they’re absolutely miserable all the time. I can see how someone might arrive at that conclusion, particularly when faced with the practice of negative visualisation, but it’s not as desolately terrible as it seems. In truth, the technique allows for happiness to grow and flourish within us precisely because it helps to soothe our fear of the unknown. Seneca reminds us, ‘What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise.‘
So, you see, the practice isn’t to drive ourselves into depression, quite the opposite! Let me give you another example, the Stoic Memento Mori, translated as ‘remember your mortality’, or more morbidly, ‘remember you must die’. Again, without the proper context it seems like dwelling on our eventual death isn’t a particularly good strategy for being happy – but you’d be wrong! Let me explain.
Once again, Seneca has wisdom to share on this subject, writing in one of his letters to his friend Lucilius:
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
You see, the Stoics view the time granted to us as a gift and by remembering that it will ultimately come to an end we can invigorate ourselves to steal the day, to do the things we’ve been putting off, to try for that new job, to ask that person on a date, because why not? It’s all going to end eventually, we might as well enjoy the ride while it lasts and not put off those things we wish to accomplish! This is the purpose of the Memento Mori, and negative visualisation more generally: to push ourselves toward a more positive outlook.
Negative visualisation in this way is a juxtaposition, a way to achieve peace and happiness by reminding ourselves of the very worst things that can happen. By thinking on how things can go wrong for us, we remove the sting of surprise if they do. In knowing things might go wrong, we can prepare ourselves mentally for the eventuality and so remove the anxiety and fear associated with the unknown. The most important thing to remember, though, is that things almost never go as badly as we might imagine they will. By building up an expectation for the worst to happen, we allow ourselves the pleasure of life being easier than we had expected. After all, as Seneca once wrote, “We often suffer more in imagination than in reality.”