You Can Always Do Something To Improve Your Circumstances

Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

This week's selection comes from Seneca's On the Tranquility of the Mind. In chapter 10, he suggests that you can find a way to improve any situation with the power of reason and clever thinking:

"No condition can be so wretched that an impartial mind can find no compensations in it. Small sites, if ingeniously divided, may be made use of for many different purposes, and arrangement will render ever so narrow a room habitable. Call good sense to your aid against difficulties: it is possible to soften what is harsh, to widen what is too narrow, and to make heavy burdens press less severely upon one who bears them skillfully."

Here's another version:

"Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it. Small tablets, because of the writer's skill, have often served for many purposes, and a clever arrangement has often made a very narrow piece of land habitable. Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly."

What It Means

No situation is so bad that a smart, level-headed person can't find a way to make the best of it. For example, even the smallest of spaces can still be arranged to be effective. Use reason to solve your problems and make things better.

What to Take From It

This is sort of the Stoic version of "find the silver lining" or "always look on the bright side," but a bit more actionable. It's about making the choice to apply reason to your circumstances instead of letting emotion get the best of you. What Seneca is saying here is that there's always something you can do that will actively improve your situation, even if it's quite small. Later on, he says:

"With the omission of those things which either cannot be done, or can only be done with difficulty, let us follow the things which are placed near at hand and which offer encouragement to our hopes..."

You don't have to move mountains to improve your circumstances, you just have to do something. Start small. Eventually those little things you do to make things better will add up. Out of shape? Start walking every day. Don't have savings? Put a couple bucks into an account every month. Feeling lonely? Talk to someone new once a week. Unhappy with your job? Find some training so you can work your way up to a better one.

Take some time to think about his example of someone with a tiny plot of land. One might do nothing but lament about the size of their land for the rest of their days. But a Stoic would reorganise the same plot over and over until they found a way to improve their living situation. When it comes to life, our fate is the land we've been assigned. It's all the things in the universe that are out of our control. Some of us have bigger plots, some of us have smaller ones -- but all of us have the ability to arrange them as we see fit. It's a puzzle, you see? Do you stare at it and moan, or do you try to solve it? When you're in a tough spot, you could yield to the nature of your circumstances, or you can attempt to improve them, little by little. Choose the latter.


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