The Stoic Art of Premeditated Pessimism

November 2, 2016
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The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, and later ancient Rome, had a great many spiritual practices that helped them to cultivate emotional calm and mental resilience in the face of tremendous adversity. These were philosophers who lived during, and experienced, the constant threat of war, exile, political upheaval, poverty, starvation, war or worse. So many aching similarities to where we now find ourselves in the world.

The Stoics knew that during a time where such things are prevalent that people need a way to better handle the constant threat of unknown calamity. People need a way to remove the sting from the random external forces that threaten to strip them of the things they hold dear in life. And it was towards this ends that the Stoics introduced the powerful practice of Premeditated Pessimism.   

What is Premeditated Pessimism?

“Begin each day by telling yourself : Today I will be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness–all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good and what is evil.” – Marcus Aurelius

There are two kinds of pessimism. There is the kind of negative pessimism that seeks to cover every positive possibility in life with shit. You know the sort. Some contrarian that is always offering the soul sucking negatives to any situation. Following you around like a rain cloud and making sure you know that nothing is ever as good as it seems.

Well that is nothing remotely resembling the idea of Premeditated Pessimism.

The Stoics presented a positive pessimism that seeks to strengthen our mental fortitude and balance our emotional responses when difficult things come to us in life. The art of Premeditated Pessimism cultivates a deeper sense of gratitude for the things we have in life, no matter how little we think they are. It is not a constant wallowing in the potential miseries of life. It is a strategic, tactical pessimism that seeks positivity and emotional resilience.

Perhaps it is best described in a metaphor. I love to workout. I go hard at the gym; sometimes failing to lift some heavy ass weights and sometimes succeeding. But before I am able to do any sort of lifting I need to do some stretching and some warming up so that my muscles can endure the impact that the heavy things have on them. That is Premeditated Pessimism. It is the mental and emotional stretching and warming up required to endure the impact of life and to do the hard lifting that is sometimes required of you.

Premeditated Pessimism is deliberate, functional, mental movements used to create a more flexible and supple mind. We do not stretch our imaginations so far so as to injure our minds when we are engaging in Premeditated Pessimism. We stretch only to loosen sore emotional muscles. We use Premeditated Pessimism to break up the tension of potential hardships, losses, and troubles of life and to prepare for the future potential hardships. It is an exercise of preparation. That is the strength of Premeditated Pessimism.

Why focus on potential negatives?

Because the world is ruled by random, external factors that are completely out of our control, and when they come they immobilize us because we are not prepared for them. Life is rife with pain, suffering and misery. You will not always get what you deserve. You will have people leave or die. You will suffer physical maladies. You will have so many setbacks in life that are out of your control and to not be prepared for them is to let them affect you so strongly that they paralyze you. Premeditated Pessimism offers an alternative to that way of reacting to the world.

Improves appreciation for what you have now.

So much of the discomfort of our lives is a lack of appreciation for all the things that we have. We live in a world of constant consumption of the next great thing and we are inundated with messages that we need to have the best of everything to be satisfied. The truth is, we merely need to find ways to appreciate the things we already have and imagine what our lives might be like if we did not have those things. By taking time to dwell on what our lives might be like if we lost the things we have, no matter how old or worn out they may be, we can come to develop a deeper sense of gratitude for them and stop looking to other things for a sense of satisfaction.

Prepare for the hardships of the world because that is the truth of how the world is.

It has been proven that your brain does not distinguish between what is physical and what is psychological from an experience standpoint. The same neurohormonal responses will occur no matter if a thing is physically happening to you or if you are imagining it happen to you. We can use the brains non-distinguishing mechanism to our advantage by imaging the possibility of the negative things happening in our lives and, by doing so, feel the neurohormonal responses in our body. But not just feel them, get acquainted with them in an intimate way so that they do not seem so scary or overwhelming. We can leverage the body’s natural abilities to get used to overwhelming situations before they happen so that when they do, we can be present, open, and accepting of our emotional reactions when we need it most.

More emotionally stable in the face of adversity.

The Stoics emphasized a personal responsibility of reasoned emotional response and practicing Premeditated Pessimism was a means of cultivating that evenness of emotion. They did not emphasize a lack of concern for your emotions, or for the world, as is often falsely attributed to them. They focused on a deep acceptance that emotions and experiences are fluid things that come and go, and as such should not be grasped too tightly or reacted to too strongly. By reflecting on the difficult situations that arise in your life – bringing them honestly and openly into your mind and your heart – you can face them in the comfort and security of a space that is yours alone. A space that is safe, comfortable, and easy to manipulate. You get to absorb the blow of heavy emotional issues and stabilize your future reactions by coming to grips with the power of them before hand in this comfort.

Improve your ability to develop contingencies in the face of adversity.

When we are faced with crises in the world, the greatest struggle and contributor to making it worse is usually in deciding how we should react. What steps can we take to get back on track and to not let a random event derail the progress of our lives? By using Premeditated Pessimism we can mentally develop contingencies that can help us to quickly and efficiently right the ship and continue moving on in the direction we want to move. It helps us feel ready for anything that comes our way, as most of the anxiety we suffer is born of the unknown; of not knowing what might come next and how we are going to handle it. By considering it fully before hand, and developing ways to react, we remove the unknowns of reaction and we gain confidence in our forward movements.

How do I practice it?

Do not dwell on the negative, but consider it

How often have you found yourself lost in a constant stream of negative thought that turns into a torrent of negativity and emotional upheaval? This is because we do not spend personal, meaningful time with our negative thoughts and consider them in earnest. Premeditated Pessimism allows us to spend focused time on considering the negative potentials of life and gives us the comfort of being able to set them aside when the time comes to go out and enjoy life. We do not carry them with us always, showering every situation with a rain cloud of negative expectation. We bring them to mind on certain occasions to temper the stresses of life and then we let them go, returning to positivity in the present. We give ourselves a certain amount of time and space to consider the potential negatives so that we can safely, confidently and joyfully experience the usual beauty of life and not constantly drag around our negative baggage.

Think realistically, not irrationally

Premeditated Pessimism is not an irrational dwelling on the potential negatives of life. It is a realistic and pragmatic consideration of what possible things could go wrong. Realistic consideration of negative outcomes is key to using the practice effectively. All too often we get lost in unreasonable scenarios that fill us with dread because we have not taken the time to consider the actual probability of those things happening. Much of our current anxiety and worry is based around unfounded and unrealistic negative thoughts about how things will turn out. By considering the realism of all the potential negatives of situations we can expose the ridiculousness of many of them and we can undress them and we come to see that they are maybe not as scary or probable as we once thought. We release our fear of them because we see that they are unlikely and, what’s more, we see that even if they should happen, we have the strength to deal with them because we have considered our options.

Maintain positivity in the present

The art of Premeditated Pessimism is a focused and strategic one. We take moments of our days to consider the potential negative outcomes of our situations or actions, but we always strive to remain mindful and positive in the present. Our expectations about the world is not that negative things will happen, it is remaining positive that if they do, you will be ready and able to handle them; emotionally, physically and socially. We carry a deeper sense of positivity in the present because we feel prepared and capable to weather whatever storms may come. We carry expectations that things will work out, no matter what happens, because we have already developed the strength of emotion and will to handle anything.

Summary

Most people who claim that constant positive thinking should be the mantra of life are at the mercy of  the ups and downs of reality and are readily disappointed when things do not turn out as they imagined. It is a hard and unrealistic façade to maintain. The sad truth of life is that you will be struck forcefully and often by many setbacks and crises, but there is a practice of occasionally thinking negatively, and always living positively, that can help you prepare for the vicissitudes of life and help you to find an inner strength to get you through them.

It is a practice that has you consider the negative potentials of living so that you can support a fuller, deeper and more grateful existence. A practice that strengthens your confidence to face down any situation. A practice the emboldens you to take more chances on the things you want and to always be ready for the things you don’t. It is not a constant negativity weighing you down with anxiety and dread. It is a strategic and tactical practice that improves the quality of living by freeing you from worry of worst case scenarios. Practice it dutifully, and with resolve, and you will find a consistent tranquility that you never thought possible. 

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