Learning Stoicism from non-Stoics

I have been practicing Stoicism seriously for five years now, I know a lot about the theory, I’ve read pretty much all the available ancient texts and a good number of the modern ones. And I’ve written two books about it. Oh, and of course I practice every day.

Nevertheless, recently I’ve learned something importantly Stoic from a non-Stoic acquaintance of mine. In fact, twice, from two different people. I’m trying my best to implement their advice, which in both cases is perfectly consistent with this quote from Epictetus, unknown, so far as I can tell, to both people in question:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.” (Enchiridion 43)

The first instance concerned a close relative of mine, R., with whom relations have been tense for several years, to the point that we hardly spoke at all, and had not seen each other for quite a while. Mindful of Epictetus’ two-handle metaphor, more than once I decided to reach out to R., consciously trying to get past our differences and remembering that we are closely related. To no avail.

At some point, though, out of the blue, R. called me on the phone, to congratulate me on my upcoming wedding, which was to take place the following day. I was surprised but very glad. R. explained that he simply couldn’t have forgiven himself if he had let the occasion of my wedding slip by without calling.

To my further surprise, though, he had no intention to clear the air, to go over our differences and misunderstandings. Neither that day, nor since. I reflected quite a bit about this, and realized my mistake — rooted in only a partial understanding of Epictetus. You see, I did try to pick up the cup from the other handle, but I couldn’t see that this implied precisely what R., without knowing of Epictetus, had intuitively known: reaching out while at the same time seeking closure by discussing the issues is really the equivalent of trying to lift the cup by both handles. Which is why it had not worked with R. on past occasions, notwithstanding my good will. 

We may or may not, at some point in the future, clear the air from the cobwebs of the past, but it was not necessary, indeed it would have been deleterious to our relationship to do so from the get go. Keeping R. in my life is far more important than settling our disagreements. And let me be completely frank with myself: “settling our disagreements,” more likely than not, was simply code for R. apologizing to me, however indirectly, or at least for me to feel justified in my behavior toward him. Large egos get in the way of good relationships.

The second instance was very similar, which is particularly vexing, as you’d think I would have learned my lesson by now. But I didn’t see the similarities until later on. My friend C., whom I’ve known for a decade, let fly some very unkind, and entirely unfair words (I think) in my direction during a discussion of certain ethical matters (the specifics of the discussion are irrelevant), while the two of us were in a social media forum together with other friends.

We both sensed that an invisible line had been crossed, and suddenly disengaged from the chat, avoiding any further interaction for a couple of days. At that point I asked advice to my friend Y., who was a participant to the episode. Y.’s response was that what happened, and in particular the words exchanged, where insignificant in comparison to the decade-long friendship between C. and me.

Not only this was again “two handles” problem, but in a sense I had also flaunted another important piece of advice from Epictetus:

“Now that is the first thing Socrates was known for – never turning dialogue into dispute, never introducing rudeness or invective, although he would put up with the insults of others in order to avoid a fight.” (Discourses II.12.14)

I guess I ain’t no Socrates, or even close to it. So I decided to follow Y.’s advice, pick up the handle of my friendship with C., and suggested we meet for a drink, with no intention to bring up the unfortunate conversation.

We did meet. And to my surprise, the first thing that C. did was to apologize for having used ill chosen words during our discussion. I replied that I appreciated the apology, but that the incident was just as much my own fault as C.’s, after which we proceeded to enjoy our martinis (dirty, vodka, with three large olives).

The morals of the story: first, once again, Epictetus was right. Second, both R. and Y. have turned out to be wiser than I am, despite not being practicing Stoics. Third, I still have a long way to go as a proficiens, someone who is making progress in the practice of Stoicism. Or tries to, at any rate.

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