How Pessimism Can Help You Stay Calm
Our lives are powerfully affected by a special quirk of the human mind, to which we rarely pay much attention. We are creatures deeply marked by our expectations. We go around with mental pictures, lodged in our brains, of how things are supposed to go. These expectations are always framing the way we interpret the events in our lives: they’re the basis on which we deem moments to be either enchanting or (more likely) profoundly mediocre and unfair.
What drives us to fury are affronts to our expectations. There are plenty of things that don’t turn out as we’d like, but don’t make us livid either. When a problem has been factored into our expectations, calm is never endangered. We may be sad, but we aren’t screaming. Yet, when we can’t find the car keys (they’re always by the door, in the little drawer beneath the gloves) or our partner does not welcome us warmly after a trip, the reaction may be very different. Here we are suffering from expectations. We are enraged because somewhere in our minds, we have a perilous faith in a world in which car keys simply never go astray and partners show no vengeance when they have been abandoned for a few days. Every one of our hopes, so innocently and mysteriously formed, opens us up to a vast terrain of agitation.
Strangely, even when we’ve had pretty disappointing experiences, we usually don’t lose faith in our expectations. Hope triumphs over experience. We console ourselves with an apparently reasonable thought: the reason why something didn’t work out this time had nothing to do with expectations. It was just that we were momentarily and unusually unlucky. Rather than adjust our ideas of what existence is like, we shift our hopes to the future.
A solution to our distress and agitation lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of pessimism. It’s an odd and unappealing thought. Pessimism sounds unattractive. It’s associated with failure, it’s usually what gets in the way of better things. But when it comes to our dealings with the world, expectations are reckless enemies of serenity. Pessimism is the royal route to calm.
One of the great theorists of agitation is the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. He insisted that anger is always the result of certain rationally-held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger. And in the Senecan view, what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic ideas about what the world and other people are like.
How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. Our frustrations are tempered by what we understand we can expect from the world, by our experience of what it is normal to hope for. We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied something we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitled to obtain it. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.
Because we are agitated most by what we do not expect, we must teach ourselves to expect everything. As Seneca put it: “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.”
He chided his readers for their hazy optimism as regards the future. They would be wiser to reflect on how open we are to disaster at all times: “We never anticipate evils before they actually arrive… So many funerals pass our doors, yet we never dwell on death. So many deaths are untimely, yet we make plans for our own infants… No promise has been given you for this night – no, I have suggested too long a respite – no promise has been given even for this hour.” There is dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability. Any accident to which a human has been subject, however rare, however distant in time, is a possibility we must ready ourselves for.
Because habit risks seducing us into sentimental somnolence, Seneca entreated us to spare a little time each day to think of everything that could go wrong. We do not know what will happen next: we must expect something. In the early morning, we should undertake what Seneca termed a praemeditatio, a meditation in advance on all the sorrows of mind and body to which the goddess may subsequently subject us.
A Senecan Praemeditatio:
[The wise] will start each day with the thought… Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires. How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake. How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up. How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins. We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.
Make up your own Praemeditatio. What are some of the things you should prepare for?
This is an extract from our book, Calm. You can also discover more on the topic in our class on Calm.