The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig experienced both incredible good fortune and misfortune in his life. He was born into wealth; he met some of the great minds of his time, from Freud to Arthur Schnitzler; he traveled extensively and became Europe’s bestselling novelist. And in that span, he also experienced two terrible world wars and was driven from his home by Hitler’s antisemitism; first fleeing to England, then later going to the U.S, before finally starting his life over again in Brazil, where he spent the last two years of his life.
One would think that someone who had experienced so many good times in his first fifty years, would be unprepared for difficulty in his final ten. Not so with Zweig. During his many years of delightful and luxurious travel, he liked to play an interesting game—one very similar to a practice that Seneca had.
As soon as Zweig arrived in a new city—no matter how distant—he would pretend that he’d just moved there and desperately needed a job. He would go from store to store, checking to see if they were hiring. He’d read the help wanted ads in the newspaper. He would often go all the way through the hiring process until he got an offer. Offer in hand, he would then walk out and enjoy his trip, feeling the pride and comfort of knowing he could handle starting from scratch if he had to.
Seneca’s version of this was to practice poverty once per month. He’d wear his worst clothes and eat the cheapest food. He’d sleep on the ground. The point was to get up close and personal with the thing most of us secretly and subconsciously fear: losing everything. Being poor. Having nothing.
There is immense value in these practices. For fears that we have faced are less scary than those we can only speculate about. Uncertainties we have practiced are more confidently endured when they come to pass. The less unfamiliar misfortune is, the less power it will have over us. That’s what premeditatio malorum is about. That’s why we must, as Seneca said, keep all the terms of the human lot before our mind—exile, war, torture, grief, pain.
Because they happen. They did happen to Zweig, who had his possessions and his livelihood stolen by the Nazis (and yet managed to do some of his best writing in exile). We must be ready. We must know the fear, so that we may not be afraid when the worst finally comes.