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Magical Thinking Is Not Your Friend

Daily Stoic Emails

When things are hard, when things are scary, when we’re tired, when we’ve had a run of bad luck, that’s when it happens: Magical thinking kicks in. 

This will all be over soon, we convince ourselves. This one thing will solve all our problems. Our ex is going to walk through the door any minute now. The pandemic will just disappear because we want it to. This kind of thinking makes us feel better, sure, but…

That’s just not how it works. 

Not only is it not how that works, but the last few months have been a great example of the costs that come when magical thinking doesn’t materialize and the chickens come home to roost. When hope is your strategy, you get caught unprepared. When you expect problems to solve themselves, you are disappointed. When you don’t listen to advice because it’s unpleasant or comes with difficult obligations, when you focus on short-term solutions or disregard risks, you’ll find even bad situations can be made worse. 

This is why the Stoics insisted on objectivity and rationality. Marcus reminds us that we have to see not what the enemy wants us to see but what is really there. He works through, in Meditations, stripping things of “the legend that encrusts them,” of removing the magical thinking that distorts our picture of the world. You can’t go around expecting Plato’s Republic, he said—the world is harsh, problems are real and no amount of hope makes it otherwise. 

Seneca’s premeditatio malorum is another exercise to combat magical thinking. Don’t see what you want to see, he is saying, see the risks, see the dangers, prepare for a worst case scenario. It might not come to pass, but that’s better than the worst befalling you and you not being ready. 

You need to understand this. Just because you’re tired, because you’re done with the coronavirus already, doesn’t mean it’s done with you. Just because you have needs or your kids have needs doesn’t change the risk profile. Just because you read some bullshit on the internet doesn’t invalidate the overwhelming consensus

Our thinking—and this is a core Stoic teaching—does not change reality. Things are what they are. Life is what it is. And it must be faced—with courage, discipline, justice and wisdom

That’s the only way through.

P.S. This was originally sent on September 23, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.