Live long enough and eventually a meteor will smash into your well ordered existence. Perhaps it is out there now. Large or small, it tumbles through space, hurtling towards you on its grim trajectory.
Well, perhaps not a meteor exactly. Although that would be a spectacular way to reallocate your atoms...however, as difficult as it is to face, other unfortunate things will happen to you and those you care about most. Unpleasant, unexpected, life-altering things. It is the tradeoff that conscious existence demands. We know it is coming. We don't know when. We are limited in changing or stopping it.
Even for Pangloss, who believed that we live in the best of all possible worlds, the reality is that wishful thinking cannot avert the inevitable.
So, what are we to do with this uncomfortable truth? How do we prepare ourselves? What do we do when the meteor hits? Why bother at all?
Here, the Stoics have some guidance for us to consider. Stoicism dates back to the third century BC and counts a number of wise scholars amongst their tradition; most notably Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics took an unflinching view of hardship and developed many techniques that are still useful today. Here are a couple.
Contemplate Misfortune. Think about the meteors of your life. Seneca noted that "Whatever can happen, can happen at any time." As he explored in On the Shortness of Life, it is the unexpected that can heighten our suffering because it violates our sense of how life "should" progress. When something jarring occurs we suffer and also experience a sense of wrongness or discordance. The Stoics talk often of meditating on evils or death, of anticipating the inevitable. Epictetus spoke plainly:
"What ought one to say then as each hardship comes? I was practicing for this. I was training for this."
The idea being that you will be less unprepared. In Epictetus' world, this was the "hard winters training" that is required to be free. He would know, he was a tortured slave who became a celebrated teacher.
Respect the Limits of Your Sphere of Control. Right at the start of his handbook, Epictetus goes on a lengthy exploration of things that are in your control and things that are not in your control. His position is that we suffer when we think we can control things that we cannot. And there is a lot that is not under our control. Almost all things in fact.
Interestingly, we do have control over our ourselves (most times) - at least we can exert influence over our behavior, our intentions, our thinking. Changing our approach to what we can control is the trick. As Marcus Aurelius noted, echoing Epictetus:
"External things are not the problem. It's your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now."
One of the things I like most about Stoicism is its acceptance of humanity, warts and all. There is a deep ethic of service that runs through Stoic writings. Aurelius exhorted himself in his Meditations to pursue the practical in attempting to help others, that we were made to work together like hands. Not to get discouraged when we stumble (as we always will), but to keep your eyes on that point on the horizon that you are navigating towards.
Albert Ellis, a psychologist, found the Stoic approach so useful that he incorporated it into his Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, an innovative precursor to many of our current cognitive behavioral approaches. Ellis, in a nod to Stoicism, advocated for us to have goals, but not be overly rigid in their pursuit, that bad things will happen to us, but we should not amplify the suffering by fixating on our troubles and making them worse for ourselves. That we must be mindful of how we think about the world and our struggles - because how we think becomes our reality.