In the year 64 AD, during the reign of Nero, a fire tore through the city of Rome. The French city of Lyons sent a large sum of money to aid the victims. The next year the citizens of Lyons were suddenly struck by a tragic fire of their own, prompting Nero to send an equal sum to its victims. It’s not unlike what happened here in America: In 2005 New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the city of Houston took in thousand of refugees, and provided incredible amounts of aid. Then last week, as Houston was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, the people of New Orleans put together a pay it forward campaign to help the people who had helped them a decade before. The so-called Cajun Navy is in Houston right now rescuing people trapped by the floods. The story takes another twist too—as the storm moved from Houston to Louisiana and now many in New Orleans are evacuating and preparing for damage once again.
Seneca would would write a letter to a friend about those fires to point out the alarming irony of one city helping another, only to be struck by similar disaster not long after. The Stoics would take all this as an opportunity to practice our philosophy. When something bad happens to someone else we should be prepared to help—if we are in a position to. We should also use that situation to remind ourselves: There but for the grace of God, go I. There but for the grace of God, go the people I love. We should consider how easily—indeed how likely it is—that one day we may find ourselves in on the wrong end of such an event.
“Being unexpected adds to the weight of a disaster,” Seneca wrote, “and being a surprise has never failed to increase a person’s pain. For that reason, nothing should ever be unexpected by us.” Remember how easily your life could be disrupted by a terrible tragedy, how quickly you could lose everything. Remember how often history follows the pattern of Rome and Lyons, Houston and New Orleans. In a position to help one day, desperately needing it the next. Prepare for this—mentally and practically. It will make it better. It will also make you kinder.
When you can (if you can), do what you’re able to do to help those in need. Because soon enough you may be asking for the same thing.
P.S. This email was sent on August 31st, 2017.