Consider two fathers tucking their daughters into bed. Father 1 thinks of how his daughter might not be alive in the morning as he kisses her good night. Father 2 assumes that his daughter would outlive him. Her lifespan never crosses his mind as he tucks her in. Who do you think would make a more loving father?
While Father 1 seems morbid in our eyes, stoic philosophy makes a convincing case that he would make a better parent. Father 1 recognizes and constantly reminds himself of the fragility of his life together with his daughter. When she wakes up in the morning, he would hug her with great affection, thankful for having one more day with her. Suppose his daughter wishes to play with him on a busy evening, he would oblige. Who knows if he would get that chance the next day?
On the contrary, the Father 2, who assumes that his daughter would always be around, takes her for granted. When she asks for her attention, he is likely to put off spending time with her, thinking of how he can do that tomorrow or the next week, when he has ‘more time’. If something unfortunate were to befall his daughter, he would be heartbroken and filled with regret.
This counter-intuitive lesson was taught by stoic philosophers two-thousands years ago. Epictetus asked us in the very act of kissing our children to silently reflect on the possibility of their death tomorrow. Seneca reminded us that all we have is ‘on loan’ from Fortune, and that she can reclaim it without our permission or advance notice. The stoics regularly practiced what we know as negative visualization.
Despite this negativity, the stoics were die-hard optimists. A modern day optimist may see a glass as being half-full. A stoic, who contemplates the worst, is grateful for the glass itself. She recognizes the privilege of holding up a glass intact rather than sweeping up its broken pieces from the floor.
Ironically, a person who thinks of a glass shattered on the floor occasionally can be more optimistic than one who merely sees it as being half-full.
Inspiration: A Guide to the Good Life