February 29, 2024

I i’m a worry Long before I read about the Stoics, I tended to start my days with what they call a premeditatio malorum – a reflection on all the worst things that could happen in the next 24 hours. These days I achieve the same effect by logging on to Twitter (or X, as no one but Elon Musk will ever call it).

To exist in the era of globalized social media is to wake up to the news that the worst has happened somewhere and, somehow, it’s your fault. Looking ahead to 2024, the thought of another 365 days of the worst possible events actually happening – and that I am somehow complicit, even if only as a witness – does not exactly fill me with celebratory glee.

What is the worst that 2024 has to offer? Another summer of devastating wildfires? A global conflict spiraling out of control from one of the many devastating battlefronts? A Trump re-election? Compared to four more years of the mandarin tyrant, an asteroid strike begins to seem like soothing anesthesia.

There is a sense—encouraged by the intimate nature of social media—that major geopolitical problems are ours as individuals to bear or even solve. Most of the outrage that defines our online lives is generally an expression of helplessness.

Along with helplessness comes guilt. Because as devastating as world events can be to witness, let alone experience, most of our worries about the coming year will be about much smaller things: The thought of losing our jobs. Rising grocery prices. Making rent or mortgage payments. The health of our families. Will the Matildas qualify for the Olympics?

We mention some of these first-world problems because we feel guilty that our own little lives can seem all-consuming even as the world burns around us. But times of crisis can force us to refocus on the little things our lives are made of. In the face of losing everything, what is most important becomes painfully clear. Sweating the small stuff is not wasted effort, but rather an antidote to the helplessness we feel in the face of grim news. Maybe, in January, we should decide to stop feeling guilty that our own lives matter to us.

Over the past year, I’ve found that the incomprehensible magnitude of global disasters has helped me appreciate the modest trappings of an ordinary life. Once deeply antisocial, I became more eager to chat at the school gate and dog park, happier to get more involved in community gardens and sports groups.

Epictetus, a former slave and one of the founders of Stoicism, argued that the main task in life is to work out what we can and cannot control in our lives. The real purpose of the premeditated advice is not to kill us for the horrors of the future, but rather to help us identify what is truly within our reach. We find meaning in coming to terms with the choices we can make, which can actually change our world – or, at least, how we live in it.

Shifting focus from the global to the local is a chance to turn our urge to make the world better to those who can really benefit from it – namely all those other small and utterly insignificant people who surround us.

If I can’t manage world peace this year, maybe I can still help raise money for a new playground or grow half-decent rhubarb. Maybe I can be more patient with the kids or listen better to a friend in trauma.

There’s a reason Stoicism has had a resurgence in recent years. The lesson of the Stoics is not to abandon hope, but not to be destroyed by failure. Those who want to make a difference in the world must be ready to always try again.

This is good news for those of us who campaigned this year for change that didn’t happen. Those of us who marched for a peace still not won. Those who have raised voices, the world is not yet ready to hear.

We cannot control what 2024 will visit us, but we can try to make sure we are ready to survive it. It doesn’t have to mean stocking up the pantry in our log cabin retreat or, for that matter, turning off the news. Yes, the year ahead may be full of horrors that are still unimaginable. By preparing for the worst, we can still live in our hope that our actions – however small – might help make it better.

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