6 June 2021

Coming at Stoicism from the CBT and mental health angle, I quickly came up against some pretty startling ideas. Visualising negative outcomes (premeditatio malorum) and considering ones own death or that of a loved one. Ideas that, on the face of it, could send anyone prone to catastrophizing into the very existential crisis they would like to avoid.

However, dig a little deeper and I find that these ideas have a much more positive basis. In the context of the philosophy as a whole they make more sense and differ from the negative thoughts the anxious mind is prone to. For me, catastrophizing is ‘all these bad things could happen, probably will happen, are happening, oh shit, I am going to die or, at the very least, publicly make a complete arse of myself’.

I came across this in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations; > it is folly to ruminate on evils to come, or such as, perhaps, never may come: every evil is disagreeable enough when it does come; but he who is constantly considering that some evil may befall him is loading himself with a perpetual evil; and even should such evil never light on him, he voluntarily takes upon himself unnecessary misery, so that he is under constant uneasiness, whether he actually suffers any evil, or only thinks of it.

I think that sums up catastrophizing perfectly, ‘ruminate’ and ‘constantly considering’ being the key to what makes it a destructive process. On the other hand, my understanding of negative visualisation is that it is the rational process of considering the possible adverse outcomes, with the emphasis firmly on rational, so that we can be mentally prepared should a bad thing happen. The idea then is one of ‘how do I respond should that scenario happen?’

This is in direct opposition to the avoidant behaviour of those of us with anxiety. The anxious habit of running over and over terrible scenarios is all about avoiding them, a negative feedback loop that you can never escape, that always ends in ‘but what if…?’ Negative visualisation is about facing reality head on, accepting possibilities and considering what the rational and ‘virtuous’ response is. It is about learning to value what we have in the here and now.

I still have questions about the apparent bias towards the negative. It is very easy to see it as pessimism. But this might be as much about how the idea is portrayed as the concept itself, given it is antithetic to modern positive thinking. To my mind, a life philosophy cannot be reduced to a quotable axiom or two, otherwise it is not worth the paper it’s written on; it is only within its context that I think a principal can be fully understood. I will continue to read and learn more, particularly around how premeditatio malorum fits within the wider Stoic philosophy.

2 June 2021

Liked: Your Autistic Year from Bix Frankonis.

In the rush to get back to “normal”, neurotypicals could do worse than to take stock of how the disruptions of the pandemic affected them, and consider the ways in which the day-to-day of what they consider normal itself can be a daily disruption to those of us burdened with very different brains.

24 May 2021

Last week, a woodpecker attacked the nest box in which the great tits were nesting. It pecked two large holes but seems to have not touched the eggs. Still, the great tit pair have abandoned it. Nature does seem harsh at times.

On Friday my wife spotted the woodpecker having a crack at the blue tit box. I left work a little early so I could come home and add fortifications. I attached more wood to the outside of the box and then used chicken wire to add a further deterrent. All the while the parents were coming and going with food for the six chicks. They told me off, I would move out the way and they just got in with it. The things we do!

So far, there has been no more woodpecker vandalism.

Stephen James

Minding the gaps

© Stephen James 2021

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