It Was Probably Worse

It’s the man stepping outside to take a walk after a fight with his wife. It’s a mother worrying about her child, the one that seems to always be in trouble. It’s the merchant stressed to the point of explosion, where will the money come from? How will I keep going? It’s the two siblings grieving the loss of a parent. It’s the average citizen following the news, hoping their country will avoid an unnecessary war.

What the Stoics point out again and again in their writings is how timeless these scenes are. Marcus reminds himself in Meditations how in every era, in every age there were people fighting over money, fearing old age, yearning for fame, arguing over things that don’t matter. These are perennial human problems. We should take some comfort in that, that this is how it’s always been, that we haven’t been singled out for particularly egregious treatment by fate.

But here’s another spin on it: Those people had it much, much worse than you do. That man fighting with his wife five centuries ago had an expected lifespan at birth that was 50% shorter than yours. That mother with her troublesome child, what resources did she have? The merchant and his bills, he was looking at debtors prison, not an embarrassing bankruptcy. And this says nothing about the fact that these societies also had to worry about the plague, about dying of infection from a tiny cut on their finger, from the cruelty and awfulness of random violence. Religious persecution, segregation, starvation, unprotected from the capriciousness of the weather and on and on.

Whatever you’re going through, however tough it is, it’s almost certainly better that you’re going through it today than a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago or more. It’s not much to be grateful for but it’s something. So let us start there.

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