Saturday, December 10, 2005

Grab it by the other handle, stupid!

Some of you have hinted that I have been pressing Epictetus a little hard of late, so let us pause this Sunday morning and honor one of his minor masterpieces, Encheiridion 43 :

Everything has two handles. By one it is capable of being carried, by the other it cannot. If your brother wrongs you, do not take hold of the matter by the handle that says he is wronging you. By that handle it cannot be handled. Take hold of it by the handle that says he is your brother and you were raised together. If you do that, you will be taking hold of it by the handle by which it can be carried.

There is no need to explain this metaphor. I don't have a brother, but I have a spouse and a daughter and friends, and sometimes they do things that strike me as thoughtless and disrespectful. That is the first judgment that forms in my mind ( proving that I am a long way from sagedom). But then a second judgment arises-- if I am lucky-- and this one says that this is a person I love or care for, and although he or she has done something unfotunate and caused me some problems, there are no grounds for ascribing to her an intent and desire to do hurtful & disrespectful things. My own actions no doubt sometimes appear as thoughtless and rude to her.

Whichever judgment I listen to will clearly give rise to very different actions. The choice is up to me. Why should I not grasp what has happened by the first judgment? Perhaps in fact the behaviour was intended to offend and hurt me! No, I should not go down that road because that leads to anger and the retaliatory actions anger refuses to forbear. My anger will in turn fuel a angry counter-reaction, and the familiar red blossoms of conflict will burst forth aplenty. Is this the result that I desire? Think about it. Much better for one who prizes inner peace and a smoothly flowing life to avoid this whole angry cycle of accusation and attack.

"But maybe it was intended to hurt me!" And so? What then do you wish accomplish ? Is this to be a lesson in power & retribution? "Those to whom evil is done do evil in return." Is this your gospel, and one your wish to preach to your own family and friends? Are you so unsure of everything and everyone that no possible insult may be allowed to pass unrequited? Who are you?

Grab it by the other handle and say to yourself, "this is my daughter, and though I wish she had not done this foolish thing, I will live with it. No one of us is wise and clear-thnking all the time."

Whenever I have been able to follow Epictetus’ advice, I have never regretted it; whenever I have ignored it, I have always found the costs too high. You, of course, must make your own judgment.


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