Prepare for the Worst

I think it’s a helpful practice to review periodically the things that could take our happiness away, and to give them some thought.

Epictetus distinguishes between the things that are outside our control and the things that are within our control. He notes that, whether you agree with it or not, most people in most moments of our lives are aiming to secure the sorts of things that are not truly within our control.

We want our bodies to remain (or become) mostly pain-free. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, but we can recognize that we aren’t fully in control of whether it is fulfilled or not.

We want our loved ones to be alive and healthy and living nearby and on good terms with us.

We want financial stability.

We want to be respected by the people we admire, and even by the people whom we ourselves don’t much respect.

We want to eat food that is tasty and filling and (perhaps?) healthy.

We want to be challenged just enough that we don’t get too bored.

We want to be entertained by people who are skilled in holding an audience’s attention and providing terror and delight.

I’m sure the list could be made much longer, and of course each point already listed could be divided into more specific sub-points for a given person.

My point, though, is that each of these things is outside our control.

No one plans to get sick or injured — there’s no way to protect ourselves and our loved ones absolutely.

We don’t control movements of the economy, or the fortunes of our employer and our market, or the laws (eg taxes) of our nation.

We can’t control when or whether people spread rumours about us, either true or false, turning perhaps the whole world, perhaps our closest friends, against us.

We can try to minimize the risks of some of those things occurring, but that just makes it all the more horrifying when it happens anyway.

The question, then, is whether there’s a kind of person who can be in chronic physical pain, financially helpless, alone, and hated by all, and still be happy.

In the history of philosophy, many smart minds have divided on this question. Some say yes, it is possible to be such a happy person, and others reply in the negative.

I believe it’s worthwhile to try to become such a person, even if we’re agnostic about the possibility of such a happy person existing.

Even if we fail to become that person, moving any distance in the direction of being that person will bring us incalculable benefits.

The time to begin is now — it will be much more difficult to rally the effort necessary to make the change once we’re already plunged into the worst.

And, here’s the thing: If we can become like the person who is happy in even the worst of circumstances, then the unavoidable consequence will be that right now, in a moment when most things are not at their worst point in our lives, being happy day after day should be not a terribly difficult thing.

Who could say no to that?

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