Surprise is for the unprepared

“Strangeness adds to the weight of calamities, and every mortal feels the greater pain as a result of that which also brings surprise. Therefore, nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.”

“We should therefore reflect upon all contingencies, and should fortify our minds against the evils which may possibly come. We must reflect upon fortune fully and completely.”

Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 91.3-4 & 7-8

I ran across the above quote from Seneca the other day and it struck me how relevant it is to what I do on a daily basis, and how, by extension, powerful it can be in everyone’s life.

It is from Moral Letters to Lucillius, a collection of letters that Seneca wrote to his friend.  In this letter, number 91, he is writing about a fire that destroyed the city of Lyons in Gaul, which is now France.  He thinks that we should meditate on how fortune can turn on you. We should think about a worst-case scenario in our everyday lives.  “What would happen if …?”  This practice has been called premeditato malorum which translates as premeditation of evil.

Through premeditato malorum we can prepare ourselves so that we will not be caught off guard if something “unexpected” should occur such as a sickness, accident, or death.  We will have made prior arrangements that can soften the blow of an “unexpected” event.

In a sense, the entire insurance industry has been built upon this notion of preparing for the worst.  People buy insurance to avoid or mitigate the financial consequences of a worst-case scenario.   If a family member dies, the survivors may not be able to pay all the bills, go into debt, and are forced to sell assets and lose the house and are now homeless.

Perhaps my imagery is a little too Dickensian (think Bleak House or Oliver Twist) but with large mortgages, educations to fund, and everyday expenses, the reality is that in most families today both partners must work.  What happens if one partner dies or gets sick or injured?  Proper insurance coverage is a necessity.

Financial advice goes beyond thinking about what would happen if there was an injury or death.  Post secondary education and retirement just don’t happen by themselves.  We have to look forward and consider the possible outcomes of our actions today.  If you want to put off saving for your retirement until later in life, you may have to deal with the reality that your retirement is not what you wanted when it is time to stop working.

Many people do not like looking at the unpleasant aspects of life.  We have it pretty good these days.  Life is a lot better now than it was in the 1st century AD when Seneca wrote his letters.  He and his fellow Romans had to deal with city consuming floods and fires, plagues, and callous, hypocritical politicians.

Well, maybe things haven’t changed that much.

As I wrote last month, life, or Fortune, doesn’t care about what you would rather be doing, then or now.  At least today there are financial advisors that can help you answer some difficult questions, just as they have helped others before you.  All you have to do is ask for some assistance with premeditato malorum.

What is the worst that could happen?