“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion Ch. 8
When I played ultimate frisbee in college I had three categories for the weather; too windy, too cold, and too wet. If it was any one of these we we would play, but it might not be good. If any two we may as well not play. For someone who went to college in northwest Ohio, on a cold and windy campus, I had some strange expectations for the weather. Had I had found Stoicism back then I would have understood that weather is one of the classic examples of something that falls beyond what we can control.
This verse from Epictetus has two good lesson. First, that there can be good things in the bad parts of life. Second, that if we view things as they happen we can find the good things when they might be hard to spot. Wishes like, I hope this trip goes well, or a smooth afternoon, are a fools errand to begin with and often we’re better off if things don’t go the way we wish.
There is good in the bad things of life
In the summer of 2011 we were visiting family in Pittsburgh, and decided to go to the children’s museum. Our family of four hopped in the car, pulled out a phone, and activated the GPS directions. Pittsburgh can be a tricky city to navigate but after twenty minutes of driving toward downtown, our GPS displayed that we only had a few minutes remaining. It was then that our youngest daughter puked.
I pulled the car over by a park and my wife and I cleaned everything up as best we could. We were in a strange section of the city and not sure of where a Target like store might be. My daughter’s clothes were completely covered and we didn’t have anything to change her into. We made it to the museum and I scrambled into the gift shop to buy t-shirt four sizes too big for our, feeling well despite puking, daughter to wear as a dress. After this ominous start the rest of the trip went great. The kids loved the different displays at the museum and played there for hours. When we returned to the house we were staying at, I pulled the car seat out and spent an hour cleaning it and talking with an uncle who was also visiting.
Never would I have wished – or will I ever wish – to have my kid vomit in the car, four hours from home in a strange city, but what happened was actually a great experience. We still have the souvenir shirt and four years later my daughter is growing into it. The experience also gave me a moment to share a heart-to-heart conversation that the men on my side of the family typically don’t engage in.
In her book, The Up Side of Down, Megan McArdle looks at how people fail and she found that when bad things happened, the people actually reported it as being “one of the best things to ever happen to them.” McArdle sites personal and public examples of people losing jobs, relationships, and money and coming out better for it. Even bad things that happen to us can be good things for us.
But we need practice spotting the good things in the mess.
In Ohio we can get snow from December through April, and my kids love playing in the snow. I’m not so fond of it, or at least I wasn’t. It’s taken four years of making snowmen together and pretending I’m Rudolf to their Santa (now Sven to their Kristoff and Anna) to enjoy the snow and our time in it. Prior to learning how to spot the good things in the winter, it was something I wished away – too cold, too wet.
For whatever reason between the ages of 18 and 30 I lost the desire to be outside in the snow. This post makes clear that I’m a weather wimp and most weak in the winter. What changed was that I practiced being more objective, and looking for the silver linings of any given activity. You can only find the silver lining in the stuff you don’t want to do.
One of my daughter’s favorite activities in the snow is to be pulled on the sled. At first this was boring and tiresome, but now I enjoy it. It’s a workout. I walk, jog, and sprint across our snow covered yard and they scream in delight as I pant with exhaustion.
When we make snow angels, they marvel at how much larger mine in than theirs. This reminds me that I share a name with an Archangel and that I’m their protector. We stomp out our names in the snow and they love seeing letters so big and struggle to make them out. We make snowmen for an upper body workout. We’re outside, decreasing our odds of getting sick. We’re spending time together.
All of these perks are in our interactions outside, and there was a time I didn’t want any of them. Raising kids can have many moments of things you don’t want to do because you’re doing something they do. After some practice I’ve found silver linings in these things, and each time I find one it becomes a little easier to find the next one. Practicing stoicism is like the Magic Eye pictures from the 1990’s. At first it was hard, then you started looking for small bits, then you could find patterns sooner, then it was much easier.
Stoic thinking has improved my parenting – and self – if you have any questions let me know below or on Twitter, @MikeDariano.
Some example in this post are intentionally superficial. In my practice of Stoic thinking I try to start really small to see how it feels. Like breaking in a new pair of sneakers or walking a new trail.