Every Situation Has Two Handles. Which One Will You Grab?

The last few months have been rough for me, as they have been for most people. Most of my talks have been cancelled. Without retail stores open, physical book sales have fallen by a third. We had two new employees start work on February 15th, in new offices we just had renovated, which now sit empty. 

There have been trying supply chain and inventory issues with Daily Stoic. My retirement accounts were savaged and then bounced back and then savaged like everyone else’s. We estimate our total business losses, so far, to be well into the mid-six figures, and that hurts a lot less than watching my son cry that he can’t see his friends at school. My other son had ear infections we couldn’t go to the doctor for, and the stray cat we rescued managed to get pregnant and have kittens before we could get her fixed. 

So like I said, it’s been rough. That’s one way to see it, anyway. I could also choose to see it as not so bad, considering the fact that, unlike 130,000 other Americans and at least 400,000 others worldwide, none of my family members nor I have died in a pandemic.

Still, it has been rough. It would be untrue to deny it, even if other people have it much, much rougher. But just because something is objectively difficult or complicated or unenjoyable, doesn’t mean that’s what you should focus on. 

“Every event has two handles,” Epictetus said, “one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other—that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.”

This is a critical life question and particularly relevant right now in light of the mountain of adversity we are facing, individually and collectively. Which handle will we grab?

When I look at the last three months, I don’t grab onto the things that were taken from me. I could grab on to blame or despair. I could grip the anger and frustration and impotence. I could even latch onto some pretty valid excuses to sit around and wait for all the chaos to pass, or…

I could look at what I’ve been able to accomplish despite a quarantine and the obstacles it has presented: 

Not a bad handle to seize hold of, right?

If you’ve ever been stuck in Los Angeles traffic at night, you know it’s miserable. But if you’ve ever flown into Los Angeles at night and seen the lit-up city from above, you’ve noticed how from a different perspective this same miserable experience can suddenly seem almost beautiful and serene. We call one a traffic jam, the other a light show.

The chaos of international politics can strike fear in us—wars break out, property gets destroyed, people get killed. Yet if you zoom out just slightly—across time, rather than space in this case—all those terrifying CNN updates seem to blur together into an almost coordinated dance of nations lurching towards a balance of power. We call one journalism, the other history.

Same thing, different perspective.

Life is like that. We can look at it one way and be scared or angry or worried. Or we can look at it another way and see an exciting challenge. We can choose to look at something as an obstacle or an opportunity. We can see chaos if we look close, we can see order if we look from afar. 

We can focus on our lack of agency in what has happened or we can focus on what we do control, which is how we respond.

Isaac Newton did some of his best research when Cambridge closed due to the plague. Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he hid out from the plague as well. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang while he was laid up in the hospital, expressly forbidden from working on something as tough as a novel. Malcolm X educated himself in prison and turned himself into the activist the world needed. Seneca produced some of his best writing in exile. Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations while Rome was being scourged by the twin evils of plague and war. 

This is what the idea of Alive Time vs. Dead Time, which I’ve written about before, is really all about: which handle will you grab? The one that bears weight? Or the one that won’t take you anywhere?

So yes, things are rough right now. That’s not your fault. But what you do during these rough times? That’s on you. How are you going to look at things? Will you choose to be miserable or awed? Will you choose to sit around and wait for things to get back to normal or make the most of every second of every day? Will you choose to focus on all the ways this has been a rough few weeks? Or will you choose to step back and look at all the things you still have and still can do?

It’s up to you. It’s always up to you. Because there are always two handles. 

I’ve come to see this pandemic as a radical lifestyle experiment that would have been impossible under any other circumstances. What does zero travel look like? Or full remote work for the team? What if your outside income sources evaporate? What if you completely eliminated meetings? What if you politely excised subtractive people from your life? What if you stopped eating out? What if your day didn’t have to be built around anything you didn’t want to do? What if there was a lot less peer pressure? 

This has been an opportunity to try different things… things that, as it turns out, I much prefer to how things were before. Things I’ll be trying to preserve when “we go back to normal” (which of course, we won’t). 

Given the immense devastation and tragedy of this pandemic, that hardly makes up for what has happened. It would be blasé and offensive to claim that it does. Dialing in a bit better at home, becoming more productive, finding things you like better than what you’re supposed to like—these hardly compensate for the rising death tolls. 

But the Stoics would urge us still not to dismiss this progress we have made as meaningless. Because it isn’t. It’s the only handle we can grab right now. It’s the only meaning and good that can come out of this suffering and uncertainty. 

Which is why I will continue to grab what Thomas Jefferson—paraphrasing Epictetus—would call the “smooth handle.” Because what else am I going to do? What would be better?

I urge you to do the same.

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