A Stoic Response to Bad News

“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.” Marcus Aurelius

Life can knock us on our ass, can’t it? Just out of nowhere, our legs are suddenly in the air and we’re on the ground. An email from your investors—they are pulling out. A phone call from your wife—your place has burned down. The specifics vary for each one of us but in a second, your whole life changes. How do you respond? How do you carry on?

Step 1) Get control of yourself.

We must steady our nerves and take hold of any extreme emotions (anger, fear, resentment).  Replace them with grace. The modern day Stoic and philosopher Nassim Taleb would write that in some moments we are only left with one solution: dignity in the face of the unthinkable. As he would advise, “Start stressing personal elegance at your next misfortune. Try not to blame others for your fate, even if they deserve blame. Never exhibit self-pity. Do not complain. The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behavior.”

“The first qualification of a general is a cool head,” Napoleon once said. So too for the Stoic.

Step 2) Focus on what you’re going to do about the bad news.

What happened, happened. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it? The great astronaut Chris Hadfield would say, “I know that this is dangerous, but there are six things that I could do right now, all of which will help make things better. And it’s worth remembering, too, there’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse also.”

The Greeks had a word for this: apatheia. It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. Just say: No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic. I can’t afford to make it worse.

The student of Stoic philosophy learns many things but the first and the most important: Don’t make hard things harder by losing your cool.

Step 3) Look for some good in the situation.

Viktor Frankl, when he lost nearly everyone he loved in the Holocaust, was able to find solace in the fact that they were spared the pain that he felt. That they did not have to live through the horrors he faced.

This is only a small consolation of course, but small is better than nothing.

Think of Seneca here: “A good person dyes events with his own color . . . and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.”

The great philosopher Nietzsche’s recipe for greatness was the phrase amor fati. “That one,” he said, “wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.” What he meant was that since we cannot change what happened, we can at least embrace it. We can embrace it as something that was chosen for us. The bestselling author of 48 Laws of Power Robert Greene has talked about how amor fati is a kind of power, a power “so immense that it’s almost hard to fathom.” “With it,” he said, “you feel that everything happens for a purpose, and that it is up to you to make this purpose something positive and active.”

The Stoics were not only familiar with this attitude but they embraced it. Two thousand years ago, writing in his own personal journal which would become known as Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius would say: “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” Another Stoic, Epictetus, who as a crippled slave has faced adversity after adversity, echoed the same: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”

It is why amor fati is the Stoic mindset that you take on for making the best out of anything that happens: Treating each and every moment—no matter how challenging—as something to be embraced, not avoided. To not only be okay with it, but love it and be better for it. So that like oxygen to a fire, obstacles and adversity become fuel for your potential.

Step 4) Remember that the Stoics actually practice mental preparation for future disasters so that bad news will not hurt so much in the future.

“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation,” Seneca wrote to a friend. Why? Because he engaged in the Stoic practice of premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils). It is a simple exercise that asks you to visualize all the things that can and will go wrong. A writer like Seneca would begin by reviewing or rehearsing his plans, say, to take a trip. And then, in his head (or in writing), he would go over the things that could go wrong or prevent it from happening—a storm could arise, the captain could fall ill, the ship could be attacked by pirates.

Let us dig in and be prepared from this point forward. The specifics of the attacks might be unknowable, but that they are coming? Well, you’re on notice.


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