Santa brought me Alain de Botton’s “The Consolations of Philosophy” which according to the reviews should provide plenty of blog fodder on embracing failure. Of course, today is the anniversary of perhaps the greatest failure/tragedy in the past decade – the Boxing Day Tsunami. And de Botton has thoughts on this event in his piece “Alain de Botton on Tsunamis and Stoicism” where he discussed stoicism, the sibling to Skepticism in the failure embracing family, and some of its insights to embracing the cataclysms of life…

  • NO GUARANTEES – “Early in the morning on the fifth of February AD 62, a gigantic earthquake rippled beneath the Roman province of Campania and in seconds, killed thousands of unsuspecting inhabitants. Large sections of Pompeii collapsed on top of people in their beds. Attempts to rescue them were stopped when fires broke out. The survivors were left destitute in only the soot-covered clothes they stood in, their noble buildings shattered into rubble. There was horror, disbelief and anger throughout the Empire. How could the Romans, the world’s mightiest, most technologically sophisticated people, who had built aqueducts and tamed barbarian hordes, be so vulnerable to the insane tempers of nature? … Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened…?’ …We must therefore at all times expect the unexpected. Calm is only an interval between chaos. Nothing is guaranteed, not even the ground we stand on.
  • BALANCING CONTINUITY AND CATACLYSMS – If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden giant waves and pay a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting across generations, on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today, and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event after which nothing will ever be the same again…Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (‘There is nothing which Fortune does not dare’), we must, argued Seneca, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times. No one should undertake a journey by car, or walk down the stairs or say goodbye to a friend without an awareness”
  • LIMITATIONS OF CONTROL – “Given our technological prowess, it’s become natural to think of ourselves as controlling our destiny. Man doesn’t any longer have to be a plaything of random forces and with the application of reason, all our problems may be solved. Nothing could be further from a Stoic mindset…Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen…‘Who promises them better foundations for this or that soil to stand on?…We are mistaken if we believe any part of the world is exempt and safe… Nature has not created anything in such a way that it is immobile."
  • PREMEDITATION – “To try to prepare ourselves psychologically for disaster, Seneca asked us to perform a strange exercise every morning which he called in Latin a praemeditation – a premeditation – and which involved lying in bed before breakfast and imagining everything that could go wrong in the day ahead. This exercise was no idle fun, it was designed to prepared you if your town burnt down that evening or your children died: ‘… ‘Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.”
  • FLEXIBILITY – “’So you must reckon on everything, expect everything.’ Does Stoicism mean accepting everything that life throws at you? No, it simply means recognising how vulnerable we remain, despite all our advances. Seneca asked us to think of ourselves like dogs who have been tied to a charriot driven by an unpredictable driver. Our leash is long enough to give us a degree of leeway, but is not long enough to allow us to wander wherever we please. A dog will naturally hope to roam about as it wants. But as Seneca’s metaphor implies, if it can’t, then it’s better for the animal to follow obediently behind the cart rather than dragged and strangled by it. As Seneca put it: ‘An animal, struggling against the noose, tightens it… there is no yoke so tight that it will not hurt the animal less if it pulls with it than if it fights against it. The best alleviation for overwhelming evils is to endure and bow to necessity.’ …‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’

The ‘Premeditation’ notion reminded me of a Sikh friend when I lived in Togo, West Africa who would pray in his car before setting out. He would close his eyes and bless various points in the car and reflect on his journey. I thought that this was a very positive ritual and one I adopted for a while when I was uneasy about flying. The simple, brief meditation just before take-off was just the relaxation I needed. It was a form of embracing failure of sorts as I simply let go of inhibitions about the flight and consoled myself with the reflection that whatever will be, will be.

I also liked the parallel of ‘Continuity’ and ‘Cataclysms’.  Leaders assume Continuity; Managers ready for Cataclysms.