On Dealing with Future Uncertainty

On Dealing with Future Uncertainty


Enchiridion Chapter 32 / 53: Here Epictetus advises us on how to look to the future and whether or not we should take predictions about it seriously.

Future uncertainty is a major stressor. When we don't know what's coming, our mind projects all kinds of fantasies to try and "protect us" and keep us in the know.

This can lead to anxiety, which can be defined as fear + uncertainty. The uncertainty coupled with fear makes us search for new information or paths, which is the sensation of anxiety.

For this reason, many people love to try and predict how things will unfold, whether that be in the form of DNA testing about potential health issues, seeking out spiritual mediums to predict misfortune or following data scientists to try and stay ahead of the curve.

We can try to predict the future, but we must always ask this question:

When trying to safeguard ourselves against an uncertain future, how do we measure the true best course of action? 

A Stoic would say that we should measure the best course of action not by the external events that unfold (neither good nor bad) or whether things benefit us in a selfish way (vice), but by how much wisdom and virtue we exercise in the face of whatever reality presents to us.

It's a radical idea, but a Stoic would say that a fortune teller may be able to tell us about the way future events turn out, but it is only we who can protect ourselves from vice, regardless of the world we find ourselves in.  

The Future is Indifferent

When we look to the future, do not add too many desires, aversions, and anxieties to it. Whether the events turn out to benefit you or not is always secondary to how your respond to the events (with virtue and wisdom).

To respond well to bad fortune is good, and to respond well to good fortune is also good. But to respond badly to good or bad fortune is bad. 

Other people may be able to give us advice on how we can live longer, or earn more money. But we should disregard that advice if it means we would have to betray a friend or act in dishonest, unreasonable ways. Health and wealth do not come before virtue. But if you think being healthy, and wealthy but dishonest and unjust is a better life path, you are free to choose that.

So while it may be interesting to look to the future and predict what will happen, it's important that we never lose sight of this empowering idea:

We can never control what will happen or what the future may bring, but we can control what we do with the raw materials of experience. And in this way, virtue is always the protection against an uncertain future because when all is said and done, it is who we are that counts most of all.