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When Things Are Tough, Remember This

Daily Stoic Emails

Most languages have some expression to the effect of “When it rains, it pours.” For instance, in Latin malis mala succedunt means troubles are followed by troubles. In Japanese, they say, “when crying, stung by bee.” The point of these expressions is to capture an unfortunate reality of life: that what can go wrong will… and often all at the same time. 

Obviously to the Stoics, the idea of premeditatio malorum is a kind of hedge against this. If you’re only prepared for a few, isolated and tiny things to go wrong, you’re going to be rudely surprised by how often difficulties come in pairs or triplets or entire litters. If you think life is going to be one lucky break after another, you’re going to be rudely surprised when, to quote Seneca, fortune decides to behave exactly as she pleases. 

The real lesson from the Stoics on adversity comes from Epictetus, however, who believed that while we don’t control whether it’s pouring, we do control how we respond. We control whether we can find something productive to do inside, while it’s raining. We control whether we put on a jacket. We control whether we’ve been smart enough to build a roof while the sun was shining. And Epictetus would have also liked the quip from the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who reminds us that in space, “there is no problem so bad you can’t make it worse.” 

So if you’ve been feeling some raindrops lately, first off, be prepared for things to really start coming down. Get ready for the bee sting on top of the stubbed toe. Get ready for your delayed flight to also have turbulence. But most importantly, don’t make it worse by overreacting, by taking it personally or doing something stupid. Whatever it is, know that perhaps the first step to making things better is just not making them worse.

P.S. This was originally sent on March 27, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.