Premeditatio Terraemotuum

If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives ‘comes in a new and sudden form,’ and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty. This is proved by the fact that men endure with greater courage, when they have once become accustomed to them, the things which they had at first regarded as hardships. Hence, the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance. We sometimes hear the inexperienced say: ‘I knew that this was in store for me.’ But the wise knows that all things are in store for him. Whatever happens, he says: ‘I knew it.'”

— Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 76.34-35

Introduction

One of the more popular modern Stoic exercises inspired by the ancient texts is called “premeditatio malorum” (Latin for “premeditation of bad things”). Seneca does a fine job explaining why we should do the exercise in the above epigraph. And modern psychology affirms that a realistic assessment of future hardships is very beneficial. The problem is that no Stoic philosopher really described how to do it.

I’m take the lead of Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez in their book titled Handbook for New Stoics (2019); they offer a few methods in the “Week 6” exercise (pp. 42-52). The first is to “plan for things to go wrong” by specifying a goal of yours, anticipating how it could go wrong, and planning what you could do or say (understanding that only a few things are truly in your control). The second is to “premeditate on others’ adversity” when you hear about it on TV or the internet by reminding yourself that a similar misfortune could happen to you. The third method of exercising premeditatio malorum is to “practice imaginative premeditation.” It’s noted that this last method is akin to “imaginal exposure” in clinical psychology used to treat anxiety. The Stoics would recommend it to everyone, of course, as a way to treat common anxiety towards common attachments and fears.

This page serves as hub for my “premeditations” of a very specific “bad thing” associated with Southern California: the “Big One.” That is, the big earthquake – 7.8 magnitude (or higher) – that is expected to strike along the southern San Andreas fault… any day now… To be clear, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake is 44 times stronger than the Northridge earthquake in 1994 and 11 times stronger than the recent earthquakes up in Ridgecrest. And I say “any day now” because big earthquakes like this occur on the southern San Andreas fault every 45-230 years and we haven’t had one in 161 years (thus, we’re in the window of probability right now, but the “Big One” is almost certainly going to occur within 50 years).

I got this information from this website hosted by KPCC (the NPR affiliate): https://the-big-one.scpr.org/. The website has a lot of helpful info and external links, but the podcast series they put on earlier this year was SPECTACULAR. If you really want to practice some “imaginative exposure,” listen to that series.

So I named this page “premeditatio terraemotuum” (latin for “premeditation of earthquakes”) because I wanted to share three general trains of thoughts with my fellow Angelinos:

  1. My reflections on the facts and what we’re likely to expect when the Big One hits the Greater Los Angeles Area. This will be some cursory research and maybe some imaginative yet realistic musings about what it will be like for me personally;
  2. My reflection how difficult this would be for myself and others who live in the Greater LA Area. This will include discussions about our collective experience, some Stoic mantras or “implementation intentions,” and hopefully some encouraging thoughts about human nature;
  3. My concrete plans for what I could do or say to myself during this hardship – that is, my plans regarding what is in my control. At the moment, what is in my control is some reasonable preparation so I’ll be sharing my ideas and my actual progress when it comes to preparing.

This page will continuously be updated as I build it in real-time (typos and all). I expect this to be something I’ll be developing off and on for – hopefully – months and years to come. — Justin K.

The Nature of Earthquakes (What we should expect)

Fate makes a circuit, paying a second visit to places she has long passed over. On some places her attacks are more rare, more frequent on some. Nothing is suffered to be quite exempt from injury. Not merely we men, whose life is frail and fleeting, but cities too, and the earth’s coasts and shores, yea, the very sea falls under bondage to fate. And in face of this we promise ourselves permanence in the boons fortune bestows! we suppose there will be stability and endurance in happiness, whose fickleness is greatest of all things on earth! While men promise themselves all things in perpetuity, it never enters their thoughts that the very earth on which we stand is not permanent. The flaws of the ground are to be found everywhere; they are not peculiar to Campania or Tyre or Achaia. The earth coheres imperfectly, it suffers breach from many causes; permanent as a whole, it is subject to collapse in its parts.

— Seneca, Natural Questions VI 1.11-13

[[MORE INFO TO COME]]

Dealing with Adversity (What we can do when the time comes)

What am I doing? I had promised to offer comfort in face of danger, and lo! I threaten its terrors on all sides. I tell you that there can be no assured peace in what can suffer or cause destruction. But that very fact I regard as a solace, and, indeed, the most powerful of all. Fear is but folly when there is no escape from it. Philosophy delivers the wise from fear; even the unlearned may derive great confidence from despair . . . If you wish to fear nothing, think that everything is to be feared; consider by how slight causes our life is dissipated. Neither food nor drink, nor waking nor sleeping, is healthful, except in due measure. One may soon realize that we are but puny, insignificant bodies, weak and unstable, that small effort is needed to compass our destruction. . . Such, forsooth, is our constitution by birth, such the powerful frames we have obtained, such the size we have grown to, that we cannot perish unless the four quarters of the world are moved, the heavens thunder, and the earth subside! Why, a pain in a tiny fingernail, not even the whole nail, but a little hangnail at the side, may finish us! And I must fear only the trembling of the world, when too thick a spittle will choke me!

— Seneca, Natural Questions VI, 3.1-4

STOP! TAKE COVER! HOLD ON!

  • STOP – Don’t run! (you’re likely to sprain an ankle or worse)
  • TAKE COVER – Don’t get in a doorway, Don’t run outside (again, don’t run!)
  • HOLD ON – It’s gonna be a bumpy ride! (several minutes perhaps!)

After the initial quake (there will be many aftershocks), TEXT as many people as you can with your location and medical status. The electricity will be out, but “cell towers in general have four hours of backup power” according to Seismologist Lucy Jones. DON’T CALL 911. They will be inundated and most phone calls won’t be going through. Text is more reliable.

If you are driving, don’t panic. Here’s a short article with advice from FEMA (https://www.lamag.com/driver/caught-in-the-quake-what-to-do-if-you-are-driving-when-an-earthquake-strikes/). Slow down, put on your emergency lights, and come to a stop. Move to the shoulder if possible (I’m thinking that it won’t be possible in rush hour on the 10), otherwise just stop in your lane and keep your seatbelt on. Try to avoid overpasses, tall buildings, and trees. If you’re going over a bridge or through a tunnel, try to get through it (carefully). Drive cautiously until you get to your destination; be be mindful of aftershocks…

Sometimes there are ‘foreshocks’ that anticipate the ‘mainshock’. Also note that ‘aftershocks’ can be just as violent as the main event. When the big one strikes, the aftershocks may continue for days or weeks later! Again, be mindful.

[[MORE INFO TO COME]]

Preparing for Future Hardships (What we can do now)

It will be useful also to be assured that none of these things is the doing of the gods, and that the moving of heaven or earth is no work of angry deities. Those phenomena have causes of their own. It is not by special command that they put forth their rage, but, just as in our own bodies, the disturbance arises from certain inherent imperfections; at the moment when they seem to inflict injury, they sustain it. Through our ignorance of the truth all these things are terrible, the more as their infrequency increases our alarm. Familiar occurrences seem less serious; the unusual causes greater terror. But why is anything unusual in our estimation? The reason is that we grasp the meaning of nature only superficially, and not rationally; we dwell too exclusively on what she has done, and do not consider what she can do. Accordingly, we pay the penalty of this neglect in our terror of things that we suppose unprecedented, when they are not really unprecedented, but merely unusual.

— Seneca, Natural Questions VI, 3.1-2

Check out the ShakeAlertLA smartphone app developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and sponsored by the City of Los Angeles. It has good information on it about how to prepare for earthquakes, but more importantly, it is intended to send alerts of incoming 4.5+ magnitude earthquake. You will get an earlier warning the further from the epicenter you are (if the epicenter is close, you will be in a “late warning zone”). Also, there is a likelihood of false alerts or missed alerts. Check out the website for information on their ongoing improvements to their network of sensors and alert centers.

As for supplies, I’ll be drawing primarily from FEMA’s Earthquake Safety Checklist. I suggest you print it out for reference (your printer won’t be working after the Big One!). There is also a form you can put your medical information and emergency contacts on for others.

What we should have on hand:

  • Non-perishable food (at least 72-hours worth)
  • Water (FEMA recommends 1 gallon per person per day) – don’t forget to put some in your car
  • First-aid kit and manual (learn how to use it!)
  • Flashlights and spare batteries (don’t use candles or lanterns in case there’s a gas leak)
  • Portable, battery-powered radio (for emergency broadcasts)
  • Fire extinguishers (Class ABC is best for all types of fires)
  • Special needs items: extra eyeglasses, contact lens solutions, hearing aid batteries, items for infants, etc.
  • Tools: pipe wrench (for water valves), crescent wrench (for gas valves), lighter, matches, whistle
  • Important papers (insurance policies, financial records) … maybe in a fire-proof box
  • Cash (no electricity = no ATMs)
  • Extra Clothes – it’s still cold in Los Angeles at night and during the rainy/cold time of year
  • Shoes (keep by your bed) – the most common injury in an earthquake is lacerations on the foot from broken glass

[[MORE INFO TO COME]]


[[ UPDATED JANUARY 24, 2020 ]]