India will not be what you expect. You will meet people that are friendlier and more generous than you ever thought possible. You will taste foods so delicious you’ll begin to wonder why Indian food isn’t everyone’s favourite. You will see sights so beautiful that they will remain embedded in your memory for the rest of your life. But you’ll also have to overcome challenges so great that many travellers write off India entirely. Logistically, you will face a myriad of transportation issues. Culturally, you will have some of your most basic assumptions about life and society come into question. And throughout your visit, a thousand and one things will threaten to make you sick. Your time in India will be uncomfortable in one way or another, but these challenges and the beautiful moments that inevitably follow are precisely why we travel: to get out of our comfort zone, challenge ourselves and broaden our worldview. Recognizing this goal and preparing yourself for the challenges that you will inevitably face can dramatically improve how much you enjoy your trip. The first century Stoic philosopher, Seneca, is the unlikely guide to the importance of mentally preparing for your trip.
Seneca was a Roman philosopher and senator in the first century AD. Born in Spain, he was brought to Rome before the age of ten to be educated in rhetoric and philosophy. Very little is known about his middle years, but it is clear that during his political career he had access to elite circles: in AD 41 he was accused of adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister and exiled to Corsica. He was later forced to become one of the tutors and then advisors of Emperor Nero. Initially, he was able to have a strong and positive influence on the violent emperor. But Nero became less and less inclined to listen to his advisor. After nine years of serving as Nero’s advisor and trying to temper the emperor’s volatile tendencies, Seneca was accused of contributing to an unsuccessful assassination conspiracy and forced to commit suicide. Although generally believed today to have been innocent, Seneca accepted this punishment and took his own life in 65 AD. Today, he is regarded as one of the most famous Stoic philosophers and is especially well known for his contributions to our understanding of emotions and how they impact our lives.
Seneca’s exposure to the violent and erratic behaviour of Emperor Nero made the importance of controlling anger abundantly clear. In his essay “On Anger”, Seneca teaches us that the key to managing anger is to manage our expectations. Anger arises when an event transpires that doesn’t align with our expectations. In Book 3, Seneca writes,
“Be prepared to submit to much. Is anyone surprised at being cold in winter? At being sick at sea? Or at being jostled in the street? The mind is strong enough to bear those evils for which it is prepared.”
Anger results from rational thought and can therefore be controlled – we just need to change our habit of thought.
Mumbai’s chaotic traffic provides a perfect example. An outsider experiencing the traffic for the first time would likely become frustrated or angry very quickly. This is because he entered Mumbai rush hour with certain expectations about how traffic should work. He would quickly become frustrated by the lack of lane discipline, the honking, or the disrespect for traffic lights and right of ways. But locals, accustomed to the noise and aware of the unofficial local traffic rules, manage to handle the situation calmly. The difference: expectations.
Sickness illustrates the point further. When you come to India from a foreign co