Be more concerned about what you control than what you don’t control.
In Seneca’s fourteenth letter he discusses three fears relating to our bodies: fear of want, fear of sickness, and fear of violence. The first two most often result from circumstances. But violence is intentional, and that makes it seem worse.
Violence can’t always be avoided, however. The victims of random shootings or domestic violence didn’t provoke the violence but nonetheless were caught up in an unstable person’s psychodrama.
Some perspective is needed, though. Our fears are often disproportionate to the actual risk. And, Seneca warns, “an important part of one’s safety lies in not seeking safety openly.” To seek safety reveals our vulnerability, and that attracts the attention of people looking for someone to take advantage of.
And there are other things we can do to minimize the chances of experiencing violence. Seneca recommends that we:
- avoid giving offense,
- avoid provoking someone’s anger,
- avoid the cravings and rivalries of the mob,
- possess nothing that someone might want to steal,
- practice philosophy with calmness and moderation,
- and most of all avoid jealousy, hatred, and scorn.
But he cautions that avoidance has its limits: “What one avoids, one condemns.” And social rejection could provoke someone. So he warns us to be careful not to condemn people.
Seneca was born around the same time as Christ, who expressed a similar sentiment. “Judge not lest ye be judged” has become a cliche, and a misunderstood one at that. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t judge. Instead it’s a warning that we’ll be judged by the same standard.
Put differently, before you criticize someone you better make sure you have your shit together or you’re gonna get what’s coming to you. And don’t be so quick to think you’ve got your shit together. You’re probably just fooling yourself.
However, Seneca’s advice to possess nothing someone might want to steal strikes me as unrealistic. People have killed for a pair of used sneakers. It makes more sense to possess nothing you value more than your life.
Finally, it’s noteworthy that his list of things to avoid are not external but rather internal things. It is our own anger, hate, scorn, and jealousy that will get us in trouble. But the bad attitudes and actions of others are not under our control.