On July 19th in 64 AD, a fire broke out in Rome. Within just six days, the world’s most prosperous city was almost completely destroyed. Ten out of Rome’s fourteen districts burned down to the ground, leaving dozens of buildings in ruins, hundreds of people dead, and thousands more homeless.
To this day, historians argue whether emperor Nero ordered the fire himself to take credit for the splendor of a rebuilt Rome. Regardless of the disaster’s origins, rebuild the city he did, in part thanks to a big donation from Lyons.
Just one year later, Nero had a chance to return the favor: Lyons, too, burned down. While he sent the same sum, Rome’s premier philosopher thought about the irony of it all. Remembering when he stood in the rubble of his own city’s decimated remains, Lucius Annaeus Seneca shows empathy for a friend:
“Sturdy and resolute though he is when it comes to facing his own troubles, our Liberalis has been deeply shocked by the whole thing. And he has some reason to be shaken. What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief.”
You may not have had to mark yourself as ‘safe’ on Facebook during a fire, an earthquake, or a tsunami, but you’ve surely had things go very wrong very suddenly. Maybe you got fired instead of promoted. Maybe a loved one died unexpectedly. Maybe an illness disabled you for three months out of the blue.
We’ve greatly reduced the toll on human life taken by natural disasters since the Roman age, but as individuals, we’ll all encounter surprising twists of fate at least a few times over the course of our life. If these twists are unfortunate, their suddenness adds to our pain. At worst, it might incapacitate us for years.
When adversity is all but guaranteed, how can we stop it from paralyzing us?
The Jurisdiction of Fortune
Never one to point out a problem without a solution, Seneca offers multiple comforting alternatives. The first and most obvious is preparation:
“Therefore, 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.”
Humans aren’t perfect. Our brains are flawed and as individuals, we all have a unique, but limited perspective. Nonetheless, being the simulation machines that we are, few things are inconceivable to us. We might never be able to expect everything, but we can make a lot of accurate projections.
We can ruminate on the duration of the good times we live in and consider what’ll happen if they end. We can extrapolate some of the bad eventualities bound to come and make guesses where they will come from. Finally, we can acknowledge that, contrary to Murphy’s law, not everything that can go wrong will — but it might. As we make plans and execute them, this helps.
The second thing Seneca offers to his friend Liberalis is perspective:
“Therefore, let the mind be disciplined to understand and to endure its own lot; let it have the knowledge that there is nothing which fortune does not dare — that she has the same jurisdiction over empires as over emperors, the same power over cities as over the citizens who dwell therein. We must not cry out at any of these calamities. Into such a world have we entered, and under such laws do we live.”
It’s true that life may sometimes render even our best efforts useless, but in this powerlessness, at least we are not alone.
Even nature itself is no match for a universe governed by the forces of change, Seneca says. Mountain tops dissolve, entire regions perish, hills are leveled by the power of flames, and landmarks are swallowed by the sea. And yet, not one of these events can live up to the rumors about it we indulge in. Especially because often, setbacks are actually the beginning of something better.
While these are all formidable coping mechanisms, somehow, none of them seems to capture the true essence of the problem. Lucky for us, Seneca did.
Finding True Equanimity
Despite Seneca’s various attempts at providing relief, when it comes to fate’s toughest blows, there is a sense of discomfort that’s hard to shake. The mere thought of losing a friend or watching our house burn sends shivers down our spine. That’s because at its core, all adversity reminds us of a dark truth:
“It would be tedious to recount all the ways by which fate may come; but this one thing I know: all the works of mortal man have been doomed to mortality, and in the midst of things which have been destined to die, we live!”
We live in a world in which everything has been designed to die. Including us.
As a result, it matters not so much if our misfortunes are unpredictable or if they happen to someone else rather than us, for these modalities merely determine the intensity of the underlying, universal reminder: all things die.
It’s painful to watch anything crumble, knowing full well we’re bound to meet the same fate one day. Every dried plant, every dead animal, every decaying building, broken chair, and crumpled piece of paper; they’re all constant little notices that, one day, our time too will be up.
Facing this truth is uncomfortable, but it is exactly in this confrontation where true equanimity lies. According to Seneca, death is the equalizing constraint allowing us to “make peace again with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties:”
Emotional suffering is a subtle complaint about the unfairness of life. Why didn’t your relationship last? Why weren’t our career expectations met? Why do fake news, armed robberies, and disturbing videos exist? All of these are moot questions once you accept that everything eventually comes to an end.
We can’t predict all of life’s eventualities, but we also don’t need to, because every possible outcome is still an outcome that will pass. Life has always consisted of both creation and destruction, the universe’s balancing forces.
If anything, we are the ones beating the odds. Our very existence is defiance. Maybe that’s why we’re so easily upset by it. We’re the ones who get to live the longest, to witness the world and what’s in it, to contemplate the circle of life.
This is the condition we lament when, actually, we should be grateful for it.
A Strange Fact of Life
Earth has always wreaked the occasional havoc on its inhabitants. And while our grasp on fortune’s worst calamities gets stronger and stronger, no one can dodge all of life’s curveballs.
Because abruptness adds emotional anguish to our many challenges, Seneca suggests we should prepare for all imaginable possibilities. Like setting the dinner table every night, it won’t protect us from uninvited guests, but it’ll allow us to welcome them when they show up at our door and at once begin.
We are also not alone in facing our ordeals, for fate makes halt for none. Neither our cities nor our neighbors will be spared; even nature must remake itself. Luckily, every rock bottom we hit is a chance to build something better.
Unfortunately, none of Seneca’s great advice can shield us from the true source of adversity’s paralyzing discomfort: we live in a world destined to die. The transience of life is tragic and we don’t like being reminded of it.
At the same time, it is this very fragility that unites all things in the universe.
Only if we embrace it can we move past the expendable questions that make our lives miserable. There is no need to prepare for every case, because all cases are subject to change. Mortality is the great equalizer, but what prelude could offer more cause for gratitude than the experience of being human?
It goes back only to medieval Persian poets, but the old adage might as well stem from our favorite Roman philosopher himself: this too shall pass.
It’s a strange, but also rather beautiful fact of life, don’t you think?