Expecting the Worst

Tomorrow I’m helping a friend move to Harlem. She doesn’t have a driver’s license, so she asked me to drive the U-Haul. I’m anxious to drive through New York City as it is, and the fact that we’ll be going through Spanish Harlem on Cinco de Mayo really doesn’t help. I have to do it; there’s no choice. I have to be a good friend. But if there’s an accident? A detour? No on-street parking available? An piñata blocking the avenue?

This is a good opportunity to put some ideas of Seneca and the Stoics into practice. Moving is stressful, so I have to prepare myself mentally for whatever might happen. I need to guard myself against anxiety, anger, or frustration. Seneca says we get upset because we have unrealistic ideas of how the world should be. He says we expect too much of people, and feel rebuffed when they don’t live up to our overly-optimistic notions of how they ought to behave. To fight this tendency, here’s what I will tell myself before moving tomorrow:

  • Should a stroke of bad luck occur, do not take it as a personal affront from the world. Realize that the world is full of unfairness, and that bad stuff happens all the time. Everyone knows this, but we constantly think we’re exempt from random misfortune. Freak accidents, unexpected illness, sudden death in the family, and general bad luck only happens to other people, we tell ourselves. We know this is a fallacy, but we believe it anyway. Instead, think like a boxer: When he gets into the ring, he doesn’t get discouraged when he takes a punch. No way. That’s how boxing works. He enters into an agreement when he steps inside the ring. Life is the same way.
  • Have low expectations. Be so at peace with the possibility of a setback, an accident, a wrong turn, something not going according to plan, that you rejoice when it doesn’t happen. Be a severe pessimist from the very beginning, just as an exercise. Accept that people are rude, self-centered, and disagreeable. Expect very little to go your way, and celebrate your good fortune when it does.
  • Imagine in vivid detail what happens if you fail. Say there’s an accident. You rear end a car on the highway, and you both have to navigate your ways through traffic and pull off at the next exit. You talk and exchange numbers. You file a report with the insurance company. The other driver is angry, and your friend is stressed out. You wait nervously for a few weeks to see if the insurance covers it or if he hurt his neck and is going to sue you. Accept the inevitability of this situation and others like it. If it doesn’t happen, congratulations. Consider it a windfall.

Pierre Hadot compares Stoicism to the way a fighter who tenses his stomach to take a punch. The idea is to expect the worst because when it doesn’t happen, we celebrate how wonderful life is.

UPDATE: Seneca’s method worked. The move went off without a hitch.