Ancient philosopher, Seneca, was not much of an athlete. But he knew quite a bit about what it was like to have a bad day. His tips on how to deal with getting the rough end of the pineapple in a sporting context are well worth hearing. One might imagine that wealthy, famous and highly respected philosophers… people who have held high status roles in government and in business… have easy lives. Seneca even rose to one of the highest positions in the Roman imperial court. Instructor, teacher, and personal advisor to Emperor Nero, no less! Good gig, huh? Nup. Not really. Nero was not a nice boss. On several occasions Seneca tried to quit, but Nero refused to let him go. Mass murderer and psychopath, Nero, was not someone whose wishes were easy to refuse.
Boss was in a bad mood
Seneca had had a number of ups and downs in his eventful life, but things pretty much reached their lowest point when, (after a failed coup from a bunch of Romans who were no longer happy to be led by a sadistic nutter), Nero dispatched one of his nastiest soldier henchmen to Seneca’s house to advised him that the boss wanted him to commit suicide immediately. The fact that Seneca had nothing to do with the attempted coup was of little relevance. The boss was in a bad mood… and when the boss suddenly develops a hankering for you to top yourself… that’s what you’ve gotta do. Post haste!
As suicides go, Seneca’s did not go well. He tried slashing his wrists and ankles while his family and mates watched on in horror. His dodgy and shriveled old veins were stopping him from bleeding to death as quickly as he might have liked. To hurry things along, he asked his doc to mix him up a drink of hemlock. This would have worked eventually, but that was also taking its time. As wife and buddies threw themselves about in distress the philosopher had himself emersed in a steaming hot bath to hurry the process of blood loss along. Eventually, after an agonizing few hours, the old bloke finally expired. Bad day! But Seneca had had bad days before. This one was no great surprise.
Three ‘bad day” scenarios
What would Seneca have advised to athletes who, through no fault of their own, have a bad day? Consider these three sporting scenarios.
You’ve been getting bum waves all day. Close outs. Sections that shut down. Waves that break too far on the outside. Waves that line up so that the punter on your inside scores it. Finally, a solid set wave peels down the line and it’s heading in your direction. You are on the inside, so no one is going to deprive you of the only really decent wave that has come your way all day. The wave builds up on the sand bank as it comes towards you. You start your paddle early to make sure that you have enough speed to get into the perfect position on the face. It jacks up a little more as it swells up underneath you. Yowee. You’ve got it. A cracker wave. You are right in the pocket as a long clean wall stands up right down the line. You drop down the face, bottom turn, then climb up the wall to gently turn off the lip… then drive down the line in a turbo-charged trim. You are checking out the shoulder-high face, meters in front of you, as you consider what dramatic play you are going to make to take full advantage of this beautiful, gift of the gods, wave.
Suddenly, a big blunt nose emerges from the lip just in front of you. Attached to the nose is a 9’ longboard… and attached to the longboard is a pretty young person… who turns her head towards you and, with a giggle declares, “party-wave” in a Spanish accent. To avoid being run over by the board and it’s rider you make a rapid turn back towards the breaking section behind you and just before your wave engulfs you, you spy the bandit rocketing down the line, zipping neat little turns off the lip as she goes all the way to the beach.
How do you react?
You are on your second run on your first day back on the mountain, on a lovely blue-sky day, after having spent most of last season recovering from a surgical repair to an ACL that you ruptured on your first snow outing of the year. The snow is good. The run is nicely groomed. The day is crisp and clear. The crowds are low. You are practicing fast, wide, turns on a fun medium gradient slope just above the tree line. Things couldn’t be much better. You are not a champion skier, but competition racing is something that is important to you. You are excited to be finally getting the opportunity to build up the strength in your withered mountain legs. Ee-ha. This is so much fun, you scream silently inside your head. You check down the mountain in front of you. The trail is clear. Your eyes then focus on the slope to your left and just as you unweight to drop down the fall line (before carving a wide turn back to your right) you hear the sound of scraping snow behind you.
Then you feel an impact akin to a refrigerator being hurled into your back. Just before you make a high-speed face plant into the snow you spy a teenage lad, suddenly detached from his snowboard, performing an air-born summersault to your left. As you hit the snow, left shoulder first, then head, you initially feel a crunch followed up by the horrible sound that a collar bone makes when it snaps. You lie on the snow, completely still, wondering whether it is the throbbing in your head or the searing pain in your shoulder that feels worse.
The lad dusts the snow off himself then saunters up the slope to where you are lying and says, “hey… are you okay?”
How do you react?
You arrive at the pool at 6.30 a.m. to swim forty laps (two kilometres) before you start work for the day. It’s not just a fitness thing. The fitness benefits are important but your primary reason for swimming at the daybreak is the way it helps you to calm your mind and mood. The working day ahead may be stressful but solid exercise before starting work puts you in a good frame of mind. So it’s a mental health as well as physical health thing.
Two of the lanes in the public pool are already occupied by the daily training squad groups. Oh well. That’s to be expected. The designated fast lanes and slow lanes already have two swimmers per lane so not much room for you there. The designated medium lane has one lone swimmer. You prefer not to share, but at busy times of the day, the reality is that swimmers have to double up (or even triple up sometimes). As the signs all around the public space declare, “Please swim down the left-hand side of your lane and swim in a clockwise direction… so that other swimmers can share.” The swimmer in the medium speed lane, that you are wanting to enter, is slowly breast stroking right down the middle of the lane directly above the black line. You stand at the end of the lane, in his direct line of vision, to show him that you are wanting to join him. As he finishes his lap, you can see him looking up at you, but he turns, pushes himself off the end of the pool and continues his swim right down the middle of the lane. Nice! You stay at the end of the lane while he completes his fifty meters down, then fifty meters back and expect that this time he will move over to the left side so you can join him. Again, he turns and heads off down the middle. Really?
A smack in the face
Five minutes have now passed with you standing at the end of the pool (looking like a drongo in your speedos) when he approaches the end of the pool yet again after another one hundred meters. This time you wave your hands as he touches the end, and you say “Excuse me…” The guy looks up for a moment so you add, “Sorry to be a bother, but I need to join you… would you mind moving over to the left. I’ll try to keep out of your way.” He grunts and, while not moving all the way over to the left of the black line, he grudgingly shifts a few inches. You assume that now that he knows that you are joining him, you will be able to avoid each other each time you need to pass in the pool, so you adjust your goggles and set off, hopefully, to complete a relaxing two-kilometre swim. Despite you doing free style and you keeping as far to the left as you can, given that your lane buddy is doing breast-stroke and is still pretty much staying in the centre, you get a smack in the face the first time you pass. Knowing that things are not going to get better you get out and leave the pool.
How do you react?
Most of us, given the scenarios described above would be really pissed off.
Because we don’t expect that we…decent people… should have such diabolical things happen to us. We wouldn’t behave in such selfish, thoughtless, foolhardy, dangerous, and idiotic ways ourselves, so why on earth would we expect others to do them to us. So how might we react?
Does violence really help?
Some might react to the first scenario by either abusing the recalcitrant surfer or by looking forward to the opportunity of taking revenge by dropping in on her at the first opportunity. In scenario 2, some might think that getting your mates to sort out the out-of-control young whipper-snapper in the car park at the end of the day might be an appropriate response. And scenario 3? Surely dropping the bastards cloths in the change room shower or letting down his tyres would not be an inappropriate response to such selfish behaviour. Any of those things might be temporarily fun but, in truth, they do not remedy your mental anguish at what has transpired. Seneca has a much more realistic solution to the problem. Athletes should adjust their expectations! People will behave badly in the sporting context. Expect it to happen. Do not be surprised when people act like arseholes, he advises. A sporting life is much more pleasurable if one understands that, from time to time, a complete bastard is going to act like a complete bastard.
As Seneca lay bleeding to death in his bathtub he looked around in disbelief at the fuss that his loved ones were making.
“Have you forgotten your philosophy?” he asked them.
Hence, we use the expression, even today, that one should accept a bad event “philosophically.”
Much of his philosophy can be summed up in the following words of the man.
“Is it surprising that the wicked should do wicked deeds… or unprecedented that your enemy should harm you or your friend annoy you or that your son should fall into error or that your servant misbehave?”
No, it’s not. All of these things may be sad, distressing, or even hurtful, but they are predictable. Losing it over someone behaving as some people behave from time to time makes no sense. Adjust your expectations!
So… next time the referee misses that bleedingly obvious forward pass, or your ball-hogging shooting-guard mate drives unsuccessfully to the basket while failing to see that you are wide open on the wing, or your captain refuses to give you a bowl at a critical time in the match when you know you have the delivery to get rid of their star batter… just accept it philosophically.