The Stoic Present: So Slender an Object

Don't panic before the picture of your entire life. Don't dwell on all the troubles you've faced or have yet to face, but instead ask yourself as each trouble comes, "What is so unbearable or unmanageable in this?"  Your reply will embarrass you. Then remind yourself that it's not the future or the past that bears down on you, but only the present. Always the present, which becomes an even smaller thing when isolated in this way and when the mind that cannot bear up under so slender an object is chastened.
Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor's Handbook 8:36

The stoic mindset is rooted in the present. The present is, after all, the only place where we can exercise mastery over what is in our control. The past is fixed and untouchable. The future is unknown. As one of my go-to Seneca quotes puts it, "These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet." How much of our present stress is actually found in the present? Our worries come from an imagined future. Our shame comes from a past we can not change. If we put those intrusive thoughts aside and examine the present moment, what are we left with? I'd wager that 99% of the time, whatever distress remains is manageable. 

I used to live under the burden of the future. For years I doubt an hour went by in which I didn't create some calamity in my head. That toxic habit contributed to an anxiety/depression spiral that nearly killed me. It took additional years of practice to learn to stop damaging myself that way. Even now, I'm a very skilled doom predictor. Thankfully, I'm able to recognize and dismiss these fantasies as what the are, a piss poor use of the human mind.

Marcus Aurelius had similar issues. In Book 7, the emperor admonishes himself in quick succession with three statements:

  • Wipe out the imagination.
  • Stop pulling the strings.
  • Confine yourself to the present.

It seems Aurelius was more than capable of imagining his own bad endings. He probably had a lot of help from historical examples, being the Roman emperor and all. Aurelius kept reminding himself that panicking before the tyranny of the future was foolish, because nothing he foresaw was real. He needed to stop what-if-ing and pay attention to the present, where he could actually affect change.

Thoughts of the future are a subtle trap. It doesn't do us any good to pretend tomorrow isn't coming, after all*. But we don't just think, "I need to do x and y before tomorrow, and not forget to bring z." Instead, we create stories and invest emotionally in them. We live out fights at work that never come to pass. Our pulse races at imagined rejections. And worse yet, by pouring energy into these fantasies, our mind often writes that effort off as work actually done. We check the box on a confrontation with our spouse that never happened, only to rage all the more when the thing we never addressed happens again!

Live in the slender present. Drop the heavy stress of your imagination and do the lighter work that's here for you in the real world.  It's freeing because, in the present, we find that we're capable people. And by doing the work of the present, we prepare ourselves for the actual future that will arrive. That's the best we get; the chance to fully participate in our own lives.


*Yes, we Stoics often take time to recognize that we could die at any instant, but it's still our duty to fulfill our tasks until the real end comes.