Premeditatio Malorum

Stoics have a decidedly astute tactic for coping with the roller coaster of being human: In premeditatio malorum (negative visualization), Stoics practice anticipatory serenity by actively imagining bad events.
What sounds paradoxical at first, however, is quite effective.

We are always very surprised by negative things that happen to us. When our cell phone falls down the toilet again or our shopping bag tears, it annoys us immensely. “Me of all people!”, we think and then we are in a bad mood the whole day. To a certain extent, it was to be expected that such things would occur again and again in life. It’s helpful to remind yourself every now and then that things are not unchangeable, that everything is fleeting and that the next misery is waiting just around the corner. Mental preparation helps to cope – psychologists know this too. If you have thought about it in advance, you can cheat fate a little and say: “Ha! I knew it! You don’t surprise me anymore!”

I would like to give another personal example where this philosophy of life has given me confidence. We don’t like to deal with death very much, or usually don’t until it’s too late. This year both of my grandmothers passed away, so the topic was generally very present in my mind. Although the death was sudden, I had been thinking about it for a while. I knew it wasn’t the norm to still have all four grandparents at 29. Negative visualization allowed me to process this loss and the grief that came with it better and faster, and put more focus on keeping my grandmas in positive memories.

Transience is a problem for many people. Some people, out of fear, often try with all their might to ignore the fact of their own finiteness, trying to rush from one highlight to another in the hope some would leave a lasting impression. Others seek refuge in religion and supernatural explanations. Since I’m not a believer, and I’m reluctant of ignoring such significant aspects of life, both of these options are out of the question for me. But also here the Stoics have a solution ready: Only by the finiteness life gains value! Because if everything would go on always in such a way, there would be no special experiences. Everything would be repeatable, exchangeable or already experienced sometime. Fortunately, it’s not like that! When you think about the fact that everything ends at some point, you have a stronger appreciation of the individual moments. Every time I eat ice cream, I have to check off an experience on my (hopefully) long list of future ice cream pleasures. However, that also means that the next time I eat ice cream will be a bit more meaningful again.

For me, confidence doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on the sofa and hoping that the future will hold something positive in store for me but being able to look calmly into the future without fear and to appreciate the little experiences, many of which we were able to read about in this book.

Julian, 29

Hartinger Consulting

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These anecdotes come from members of the CommUnity International network.

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