“When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.””
In this passage Epictetus is suggesting we consider what might happen during the course of our day and frame things as they are, messy.
In Epictetus’s time, even a white collar slave like himself could use the bath houses. He would have paid an entrance fee to enter and then would typically strip down,exercise in a steam room to work up a sweat, and then move to a cold chamber to bath. He may also swim, socialize, and get a massage. It was a semi-public place, populated by people of all economics stripes where you left your clothes somewhere and hoped no one was a jerk. I’ve never been to a Roman bath house, but have been to the closet modern thing. Disney.
Our family has been to Disney many times and have had a wonderful trip each time, in part because of our mindset. We plan our trips a year in advance, register for dining as soon as our window opens, and know what we want to do. There is no sense of needing to hurry when we arrive because we plan for the essentials and anything else is a nice bonus. This isn’t the case for everyone.
DIS Unplugged podcast host and Disney aficionado Pete Werner once devoted an entire opening monologue about how some visitors need to “get theirs.” Werner hypothesized that because people visit for a short period of time and pay a high price, they will do everything they can to make their trip the best it can be. Some Disney visitors then are like the bathing Romans who don’t want to wait for the massage and are willing to splash around the pool with no regard for others.
One night in October of 2013 my wife, sister-in-law, three kids, and I wrapped up a full day in the Magic Kingdom park. We had arrived at ten in the morning and finished watching the wonderful fireworks show. It is a great show thanks to the collective enthusiasm from the crowd, the setting, and the overall happiness after a full day in the theme park.
Once the final firework had fizzled, we began the slow, stroller pushing march back to our hotel room. Us and about 50,000 other people. At the Magic Kingdom the fireworks are shot upwards so they zoom and explode over the castle. It’s a great Disney moment but it means a heavy crowd of tired adults standing in a finite space. Once the show is over you have a packed corridor of people who want to leave the park. (This congestion was so bad that in July of 2014 Disney began work to create alternate routes out of the park).
Leaving that night we were shoulder to shoulder with people, and we had to push a stroller with two sleeping children. Pushing a stroller through heavy crowds nearly requires two heads. One to apologize for bumping into someone and one to look for openings and say excuse me. You will constantly be in someone’s way, accidentally run into their heels, and have the same thing done to you.
Whether it was the Disney magic or my past Stoic readings I didn’t feel any of the frustration of the other parents there. It was like, “Okay, I’m in a park with thousands of other people and exiting will naturally take a long time. I’m going to use this time to reflect on the memories I got to make with my daughters today.” This worked wonderfully. Someone would bump into me or cut me off and I would be thankful I wasn’t in such a hurry. I was happy we were able to just be there, that someday my kids would outgrow this, that we were spending time as a family.
This mental framework can work in about any situation where you have a large group of people. At sporting events people will be drunk and jerky. At fairs people will litter and swear. At church people will judge other without judging themselves. Just like a small poncho can save a trip when it starts to rain, slipping into the right Stoic mindset might preserve your day as well.
//Photo is of the Magic Kingdom castle before the fireworks and crowds.