I recently went through a bit of a difficult stretch.
Difficult probably isn’t the most accurate word for a white male living in America, with an amazing wife, two perfect kids, and an awesome job. But, we all experience the occasional rough patch and I was in the midst of one.
The details aren’t important (maybe a story for another day), but the basic facts were this:
Some stuff happened to me that I could not change, and I was struggling to accept it all.
This failure to accept negative situations is nothing new.
I once had hardwood floors installed on the cheap by a less-than-upstanding contractor. When the floor began warping a few months later it became clear he had no idea what he was doing (so much so, he was out of business soon thereafter).
Furious, I spent nearly two years calling him, writing to the Better Business Bureau and even initiating a suit against him in small claims court. I stewed on the injustice and it drove me (and my wife) crazy.
I never saw one penny from him, nor did he repair my floors. In the end I paid someone else to completely fix the entire mess. I cannot remember how much that cost, but the fact that I cannot remember means it was probably not that much.
Sure, other times that dogged refusal to accept a bad situation has served me well. Sometimes it leads me to achievement, to “never give up”, but it always comes at a price.
How many times has my obsessiveness created undue stress and made the situation worse-both for me and those around me? How many times has it all been for naught?
Too many to count.
So what’s the alternative?
Just resign ourselves to fate and go through life suffering through whatever it throws at us?
Whenever I find myself struggling with something, I tend to seek the advice of those much smarter than me.
During this recent bout of discouragement, I turned to a stack of books I had been putting off reading.
I had just come across a copy of Enchridion, or “The Manual”, by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and was struck by this line as I read through it one night:
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
Those words were compiled sometime in the second century, but it seemed as if they were being spoken directly to me.
The actual things that were causing this “rough patch” had become secondary to how much time and energy my brain was spending worrying about them. That worrying had lead to me being grumpy and terse with those around me, which only exacerbated things. Then I stopped exercising almost completely which lead to poor sleep.
A vicious cycle.
Then, as is so often the case when one comes across a fresh idea, I started to see more and more of what Epictetus seemed to be getting at.
It’s like that saying about buying a green car. The next thing you know you, you can’t stop noticing all these green cars on the highway.
Next was this line that jumped off the pages of Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart:
The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.
Or this from Courage Under Fire, James Stockdale’s essay on his eight years spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam (two of which were spent in leg irons), as he describes how ones own will determines their fortunes:
Work with what you have control of and you’ll have your hands full.
And then this passage from Man’s Search For Meaning, psychologist Victor Frankl’s incredibly powerful account of his time in a Nazi concentration camp:
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. . . Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.
Here was a man who spent three years in a concentration camp enduring unspeakable horrors, and yet he was urging me to “make use of the opportunity” associated with suffering?
Did he really just describe his time in Auschwitz and Dachau as an opportunity?
Meanwhile, a third of Americans are doing less work now because they are stressed out from the election.
And I was losing sleep over some stuff that 99% of the planet would find trivial.
I know someone who hates their job (don’t we all?).
All he does is complain about it.
His boss. His bosses boss. His competitors. The industry he works in. The government (which he blames for destroying that industry and yet, somehow, simultaneously helping his competitors).
When I ask him why he doesn’t just quit, he says he needs the money. When I ask him why he doesn’t get a new job, he says he doesn’t know how to code.
His learned helplessness is exhausting.
Rather than take any responsibility for his station in life, rather than take any action toward improving it, he is resigned to his fate and leads a pretty miserable existence.
It’s terrible to watch and I find myself avoiding this conversation and, sometimes, avoiding this person altogether.
If this sounds like a contradiction, I concede that I am suggesting we all tread a very fine line here.
I am recommending studied indifference in the face of some distress while urging action in other cases. I am championing acceptance while denouncing resignation, two admittedly very similar terms.
But the difference, as I see it and as I am sure you have sussed out by now, is whether or not you possess any control of the situation.
Accept what you cannot control, but never resign yourself to that which you can.
(If this all sounds like some sort of mind game, you may very well be right, but trust me, it’s one worth playing).
Resignation is giving up. Acceptance is moving on.
Which is exactly what I finally did.
And I can tell you I slept very well last night.