It might have seemed crazy to read that, all those years ago, Seneca practiced a day of poverty each month. He fasted or he ate sparingly. He wore rags and slept on the ground. He got up close and personal with what it meant to have less, to remind himself of what life was like if many of his creature comforts disappeared.
He called this philosophy. It can sound a little extreme out of context, but this was how he practiced. Suddenly, though, it doesn’t seem so crazy or extreme, does it? Not with large parts of the United States re-entering lockdowns. Not with the dramatic increase in cases worldwide, from Phoenix and Houston to Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai. Not with hospitals packed with COVID-19 patients that have to turn away new patients for lack of room.
Seneca knew what he was doing. He had experienced exile. He’d been driven from the very top of public life… twice. He saw Rome ravaged by fire. He saw colonies destroyed by rebellions. He knew how easily our old “baseline” can start to look like a high watermark when Fortune arrives with its sometimes characteristic random cruelty.
Who knows where things will go over the next few months, as we wrestle with this global pandemic. They will almost certainly get better, in time—but not before they get worse. Possibly way, way worse. As we have continued to wrestle with COVID-19, many of us have had to figure out how to make do with less—possibly for a long time—less toilet paper, less trips, less nice meals in restaurants, less money coming in. It hasn’t been fun, and it was a good taste of Seneca’s practice.
“Rationing” sounds scary, it sounds almost punitive. But it’s really just another word for self-control, for discipline. It’s a good reminder that we should never get used to anything. That even though we prepare, even though we read and write these things, it’s still easy to get caught off guard, to assume that we’ll never have to go back to the old days.
Well, here we are. Be ready. Be good. Don’t be afraid. You knew this was coming.