Most languages have some expression to the effect of “When it rains, it pours.” For instance, in Latin malis mala succedunt (forgive my pronunciation) means troubles are followed by troubles.
In Japanese, they say, “when crying, stung by bee.” The point of these expressions is to capture an unfortunate reality of life: that what can go wrong will… and often all at the same time. Here in the UK, 2020 started with what seemed like two solid months of rain and storms which caused terrible flooding in many parts of the country, damaging houses, businesses and livelihoods. And just as the sun finally began to shine, the Coronavirus Pandemic takes hold and now the storms and floods seem like a distant memory to many of us.
A favourite phrase in my family is “trouble comes in threes”, which I always found to be an interesting statement, and the best origin of that phrase dates back to the Boer War where, apparently, Dutch snipers would look for three soldiers lighting their cigarettes from one match as a good opportunity to take down some enemy soldiers as they would all be close together, increasing the chance of a direct hit.
Anyway, back to this idea of trouble and bad luck coming in groups. If you go further back in time, you find precedence for these kind of sayings dating back to the Stoic Philosophers. A common Stoic Practice back then was Premeditatio Malorum, which was a mindset that said just when you think that things can’t get any worse, imagine what could be worse and take action to prevent that from happening. It’s effectively a personal risk management process that surprisingly does help you feel a bit better about your current situation. To quote Lee Child’s Stoic protagonist Jack Reacher, Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.
But the real lesson to be learnt from the Stoics on adversity comes from Epictetus, who said that we can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond. We control whether we can find something productive to do in the house when it’s raining. We control whether we put on a jacket and go out in the rain. We can’t control whether the government tells us to stay inside and avoid contact, but we can control what we do to pass the time that is given to us. When life throws us lemons, make lemonade.
And Epictetus would have also liked the quip from the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who reminds us that in space, “there is no problem so bad you can’t make it worse.”
So if you’ve been feeling sorry for yourself lately, first off, be prepared for things to really start coming down. Get ready for the bee sting on top of the stubbed toe. Get ready for the current disaster to last longer than you hope. Plan for the worst, but hope for the best. But most importantly, don’t make it worse by overreacting, by taking it personally or doing something stupid. Whatever it is, know that perhaps the first step to making things better is just not making them worse.