He who has given takes away

The only time I was ever in an ambulance was when I suffered a broken nose and several fractures to my upper maxilla. As a consequence of those injuries, I had my jaw wired shut for quite a while. To add insult to injury, I found that when the wires were finally removed my jaw muscles had become so tight that I still could not open my mouth. I was so looking forward to solid food, but would have to wait another week.

My disappointment at that time stands in stark contrast to my state of mind while sitting in the ambulance. I had just been reading Epictetus shortly before the injuries occurred, so I had an idea fresh in my head: “If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed.” So I thought to myself (no fooling, I actually thought this,) “if your face gets broken, you shouldn’t be disturbed. Faces occasionally break, but that is beyond your control.”

I now suspect that I was simply in shock. Once I was at the emergency room, I was miserable. Not very stoic at all. I am not sure that Epictetus would have been more possessed than I was, but he certainly talks a big game. After saying that you shouldn’t be upset if your cup breaks, he says that the same is true of your wife and children. “If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” Brutal.

Since Epictetus was a crippled ex-slave who never married, it is impossible to say how he would actually react to losing a wife or child. Job, however, presents an interesting look at the way a Stoic responds to such a loss. To be sure, Job is a very difficult book to understand and it is arguable that Job’s reliance on faith is somehow opposed to the stoic’s reliance on reason. However, Job certainly starts out sounding like Epictetus.

Epictetus: He who has given takes away… [You say,] “I would have my little children with me and my wife.” What, are they yours? do they not belong to the Giver, and to Him who made you? then will you not give up what belongs to others?

Job (upon learning of the death of his children): The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

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Beer of the week: Blue Moon Belgian White – Incidentally, the same year that I took that ambulance ride, I also stole a few Blue Moons from some friends while playing a prank on them. I sincerely doubt that there was any karmic relationship between the two events. Blue Moon is meant to be a Belgian-style wheat ale. The aroma is sweet and yeasty, with just a hint of fruit. Typical of the style, this unfiltered beer is pale and very hazy. Overall, Blue Moon is rather bland. There is a distinct wheat flavor, but it is similar to that of a water cracker. There is a tiny bit of spice on the back end, but not enough to salvage this beer.

Reading of the week: The Book of Job, Chapter 6 – Job may come across as a stoic at first, but I could hardly imagine Epictetus saying “Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea!” On a bad day, this chapter is great for putting life into perspective.

Question of the week: Is it really possible to suffer a significant loss and not be disturbed? If somebody important to you died, could you simply shrug it off as Epictetus suggests, or would you curse your lot as Job did?

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2 Comments on “He who has given takes away”

  1. DCole.Simmons says:

    Oh good, we happen to be thinking about something similar at the moment. My interpretation of the stoic involves him having a hold on something but being oddly confused. His aim is to care for nothing so that he does not suffer at its loss. This is necessary because he believes everything is in some sort of flux, or will definitely be lost. But how strange! What an intense care for oneself. You give up everything, even yourself, to avoid suffering. Do you take pleasure in the absence of pain? And once you do… are you not there, caring about yourself? But then you’ve been undone it seems to me. And if you don’t take any pleasure and the pain is just absent, are you dead? “I’ll really enjoy being dead” is not a rational thought.

    It is all very confusing. I have been reading about Odysseus’ decision to leave Calypso to try and get a handle on it, but am having a hard time.

    But certainly we have had that experience – I’ll call it “being mr. objective” – where pains both physical and psychical are forgotten about when we are doing a good activity. At those moments the “subject” seems lost. And the stoics seem to aim at this, and that is all well and good, but I just don’t know how good being objective is if you have to suicide the subject to do it.

    • I am not sure that the stoics were giving up the self, so much as insisting that the body and the self are divisible. The physical aspect of Epictetus may have experienced pain or pleasure, but either way the self was unaffected. This sort of belief can be traced through Descartes (the mind is the only thing that we know for sure, the perceptions of the body are as likely to be wrong as not) and most Christian sects (at death, the soul lives on in either heaven or hell). Even modern medicine still has a taste of this (depression, anxiety, etc. are all treated with drugs that affect the brain rather than treating the “whole person”.)


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