In Rome, as today, things went wrong all the time.
Wars broke out. Earthquakes struck. Pandemics infected populations. In Rome, as in our time, people were constantly caught off guard by these things.
Seneca writes about a fire that broke out and destroyed the city of Lyons. Lyons’ citizens were not prepared for its destruction, even though it was preceded a year earlier by the Great Fire of Rome. If only they had listened to Seneca. He’d been saying it since the first time he was exiled: premeditatio malorum, “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.”
What of today, as COVID-19 makes quick work of businesses, government agencies, and supply chains? Was there anyone able to withstand the onslaught of economic and health issues? Yes, it turns out there was. In Texas, there was HEB, the grocery chain who has been actually expanding services and letting customers know they don’t need to stockpile—because plenty more supplies are coming. There is also AT&T which, despite record broadband usage, is ably handling the surges. How? Because they prepared for this. They war-gamed for precisely this scenario.
AT&T rehearses for disaster. Last May, the company ran an internal war game on how a pandemic would affect its ability to keep phone and internet service running. The company does these exercises routinely to try to get ready—to build teams of people and their reflexes, and also to understand what they will need on the ground.
Seneca said we should be routinely peering ahead, planning for the unexpected, running these war games. Like Lyons burning to ashes or global stay-at-home orders, it’s hard to fathom some of these things actually happening. But that’s precisely why we have to be ready for them. You have to put yourself in the position that Epictetus said we must be in—the only position that lets you greet adversity with the expression, “You are precisely what I trained for.”