In his Discourses, Epictetus recounts the story of Agrippinus, a man being tried for treason by the Roman Senate. If found guilty, exile or execution would result.
Around eleven in the morning, message came that the senators were deciding his fate at that very hour. Upon hearing this, he proceeded to do what he always did around eleven in the morning: to bathe and exercise. He continued his normal routine, fully knowing that his life and property were on the line. Later, at the time for lunch, word arrived of the Senate’s final decision. He had been convicted.
‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or death?’
‘And my estate, what about that?’
‘It has not been confiscated.’
‘Well then, let us go to my villa in Aricia and have lunch there.’
Why did the verdict have no apparent effect on his attitude or behavior? Here was his explanation:
…‘I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived—and dying I will tend to later.’1
He recognized that there were some things out of his control. So why worry about them? He would deal with them when they occurred, not before. And even if pain or death lay ahead of him, why grow distressed over things he was unable to change. “I don’t add to my troubles,” he would often say.
Sufficient for the day
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. –Jesus 2
Thinking about tomorrow isn’t bad; it can have some benefits. Considering the future consequences of your actions can shape what you do today. Planning ahead can help you prepare for opportunities and avoid pitfalls that lie in front of you. But thinking about the future can also turn into worrying about things outside of your control.
There are multiple problems with turning to worry, though. First, many times the things we worry about don’t even occur. And so all our internal stress or anxiety end up being unnecessary. Second, if we’re anxious about things beyond our control, worry provides no benefit. It won’t stop them from happening or help us better face them when they do.
Finally, worry can turn our attention toward tomorrow when there are already plenty of things that merit our attention today. There’s enough for us to deal with in the present without also trying to live in the future. Why bring the problems of tomorrow into today? Tomorrow will be here soon enough, and we can deal with whatever it brings then.