In the Stoic view there are no circumstances so bad that dispassionate thought will not bring tranquility or at least diminish anguish. That palliative role of thinking in the face of hardship stands as one explanation why Reason (synonymous with thinking as opposed to feeling) is so vital to Stoicism. If we reason with ourselves we can make ourselves less miserable. That reasoning process includes certain specific kinds of thoughts, including (perhaps not limited to) the following: I never know what else might have happened in the erratic course of events, so I cannot be sure I have anything to lament, not knowing what else might have happened; death can come at any time, so I should appreciate whatever is afoot; what torments me is beyond my control and even might not happen; suffering is the way of the world and life; much of what is considered unfortunate is simply a matter of perspective or opinion and might simply be a product of disappointed expectation. Last, and most at issue here, is the thought that things can always be worse. To the destitute slave in ancient Rome who has nothing but a loin cloth, the mitigating thought is: How much worse would you be without the loin cloth? If the answer is nothing could be worse—there is no consolation—then, the Stoics would say, Nature has given you a way out, which we can either wait for or hasten, suicide being an option.
That phrase in the Stoic thought-kit is in common and current use, of course. People routinely say as a platitude, “things could be worse.” Frequent usage does not necessarily devalue the phrase; however, not really understanding that things could be worse makes the phrase meaningless. So, if one, Stoic-wise, actually bears in mind that things could be worse, does that help? One might petulantly protest, to heck with thinking it could be worse, I am damned miserable right now. That would be indulging the emotion, however, and would not be conducive to anything except more misery. Any emotion that is indulged flourishes. That realization sets up the analysis of this Stoic thought as effective or not in the context of life and its limitations. The question is not whether thinking how things could be worse is a wholly satisfying cure– rather, whether it is better than the alternatives. One alternative is the one just mentioned, abandoning thought and wallowing in emotion. That can go to different levels from short term whining to total capitulation and viewing yourself as fortune’s fool, destined to suffer and powerless to dismiss any of your tormenting feelings. Joined to those states of mind would be complaining to others—that worst of offenses. To clarify–complaining to others is something other than asking for help or advice. If there is a real goal—some ascertainable point—to the conversation, it is not complaining, even though the content resounds of hardship. Even statements of fact about all the unpleasant things that have happened are not complaints, as long as it stops there. I see the following as the litmus test for complaining: can the hapless listener work with you to a decision; hatch a plan; offer a way of thinking about a situation; give, or point out resources of, advice? If not, then why have the conversation? Hint—this dialogue usually has a future component, and if the matter is entirely in the past, or a “matter of principle” then it belongs in the rubbish heap of complaining. Everyone has his or her own problems and if one starts up complaining, it is usually an invitation for the other to join in—to no avail to anyone involved. (One exception is grief—it is sui generis, but even it must be finally kept within ourselves).
What are the alternatives to indulging one’s misery and complaining? There are drugs, I guess, but they come at a high price and are temporary. Certain kinds of exercise help, especially if they require thought. Seneca suggested liberal arts study (literature and philosophy). Emily Brontë lost herself in her imagination. One might play an instrument or have some other kind of activity. The problem with exercise and activities is that we might not be in a situation to have recourse to them. That leaves using our brains—something always available. By pondering that platitude-encapsulated notion of how things easily could be worse, we are reminded at least to not indulge our emotions and to try to think; further, we must accept the axiomatic nature of the idea—if one looks at the world and life through time and in the present, of course things could be worse. However, after engaging our reason over our emotions and appreciating the immutable truth, does realizing that things could be worse actually work any magic to dull the blow? Without question it helps, I would say, the perennially dissatisfied, and is better than not doing it to combat a cohort of undesirables. Thinking is free, bothers no one, and might bring an acceptance bordering on restored tranquility. I would conclude, then—yes, take that well-worn phrase to mind and possibly find relief where there was consternation. A loin cloth can be a wonderful thing.