It’s when you actually need something that it’s too late to get it ready. It’s in times of peace that nations must sharpen their swords. It’s in times of prosperity that people must save money. It’s in times of leisure that we have to be learning. It’s before the onslaught that we need to be shoring up our defenses.
We’ve talked about this before but there’s a great exchange in the book Chicago, by David Mamet (himself a fan of Stoicism). The characters, having found themselves on the wrong side of a mob war, are arming themselves and discussing where to hide a pistol for protection. Then one reminds the other that “the one phrase you never want to use” when trouble arises, is “Wait here ‘till I fetch it.”
It should be obvious to you by this point that the next few months and years will be rough. We don’t know exactly how rough, but considerably rougher than they were last year and quite possibly rougher than they have been already. That’s not going to be yours to control or to prevent. What is up to you—putting aside any failures or mistakes you may have made in the past—is how ready you will be. Are you going to have a sharp sword or are you going to have to run and fetch something? Are you going to be tucked inside a strong inner-citadel or are you going to be looking enviously at the other people who used their time wisely, who prepared for the possibility of winter?
Marcus Aurelius said that philosophy makes us like a boxer—where we don’t even need to stoop to pick up a weapon, where all we have to do is clench our fits. Epictetus’s Enchiridion translates similarly—“at hand.” It’s always ready to go. Which is how you have to be, how you’ll want to be for whatever the future holds.
And right now, in the present? Now is the time to get ready. To use this moment, to prepare, to sharpen, to build, to reinforce, to learn. And if you’re behind? Better late than never. They say the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, and the second best time is today.