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Thinking Out Loud

My Grandmother's Stoicism

by Michael Jinkins | May 31, 2016

"God has not made you steward of the winds."

(Epictetus, 1st Century A.D. Discourses, Book, I. 1. 11-19)*

StoicismWe had just come from my grandmother's funeral. I was sitting alone in the den, reflecting on her long life touched periodically and often by sorrows and troubles, struggles, losses and worries, the extraordinary ordinariness of a long human life.

She was of a generation that simply endured. She lived through her beloved little sister's death at age five of spinal meningitis. She kept a photograph of Pauline and her by her bed for the rest of her life. She endured her parents' divorce just after World War I, in a time when relatively few people got divorces. During the stock market crash of 1929, by then a young wife with her own family just beginning, she witnessed her father lose a fortune. Scratching and saving, as a recent graduate of the San Marcos Teacher's College, she and her husband found a way to make it through the Great Depression and its aftermath raising a family on what wages a two-room school in a one-horse Texas town could afford. She saw children off to the armed services, to business college, and presided over the family store and the farm, and somehow survived her husband's premature death. She just kept enduring. Starting over in her fifties, after his death, taking whatever job she could find (for example, as a "lunch lady" in a public school), caring for her own aged mother, teaching her weekly Sunday school class, leading the Women's Missionary Auxiliary for forty years, and serving as matriarch for her children and children's children and beyond.

She practiced an untutored Stoicism that beats the pants off of most of the tutored kinds, my own included. But tutoring on the day we buried her was what I needed, as I sat thinking through the portion of her ninety years I knew. So I turned to the bookshelves in my parents' den and found there, among a row of old Harvard Classics, a cracked and foxed volume of Epictetus' Discourses. And I sat down to read.

There are passages in Epictetus that, with just a few minor alterations, sound just like something my grandmother would have said:

"We must make the best of what is under our control and leave the rest to God."

"If we had sense we would never stop praising God."

"How should we die? Why, as someone who is giving back something that belongs to somebody else, of course."

I still remember vividly reading that old volume of Epictetus while the rest of the grieving family gathered in the kitchen.

That was almost twenty years ago. Hard to believe she has been gone that long. There were probably a lot more Stoics in her generation than are around today. Debbie's grandmother was another Stoic I had the good fortune to have known.

We have been truly lucky to have known people of such ordinary everyday pluck, grit, and courage, and really lucky if we happened to be raised by them.

Turning to Epictetus that day, I also realized what an advantage it is exploring someone like that tough old first-century Stoic philosopher as an adult over reading him when I was a youth. Reading him as a young person, especially while at school, Epictetus represented just one of several "schools" of philosophical thought, something more to be learned about. Or, worse, his Discourses were simply another Koine Greek text to practice Greek translation on. Now, he has become an indispensable source of wisdom and consolation, someone from whom to learn to live.  Now, it's personal, you might say.

I've written before on several occasions about the role Stoicism plays in my spiritual and intellectual life. And I will not retrace that path, except to say that I have found deep resonance between Stoicism and biblical faith, not least the teachings and way of Jesus of Nazareth and the writings of Saint Paul. And, it should be added, there are profound similarities between the thought of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and the book of Ecclesiastes, and certain streams of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Why should that surprise us? Herein lies the deep wisdom of the world. And we know that we Christians do not have a monopoly on truth. The wisdom of God is not limited to a single culture or continent or faith. Wherever we go in this world, God has been there before us. We should be prepared always, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, to meet the Christ already present.

Although, of course, I know it is literally impossible, you can almost hear the echo of Jesus (Luke 10:41) in the passage where Epictetus says:

"But now, although it is in our power to care for one thing only and devote ourselves to but one, we choose rather to care for many things, and to be tied fast to many. ... Wherefore, being tied fast to many things, we are burdened and dragged down by them." (Discourses, Book I. 1. 11-19)

Can't you almost hear the voice of Jesus saying, "Martha, Martha, you worry and are distracted by so many things. Don't you know that few things are needed, indeed there is only one needful thing?"

The comment from Epictetus which I used as the epigraph for today's column is drawn from a longer passage in which he makes fun of those who worry and fret because the winds do not favor their sailing. Their plight reminds me of the situation most of us find ourselves in from time to time, standing at a departure gate, crowded, being pushed and shoved by impatient fellow travelers, listening as angry passengers vent their frustrations at the gate agent after being told that the incoming flight has been delayed, pushing back even more your flight's already late departure. "When will the storms blow over? When will the plane be allowed to land? I've got to get to Chicago!" Epictetus is the patient old guy in the toga still sitting calmly in his chair sipping his coffee watching the rain fall outside the terminal window. He knows in his heart and not just in his head that God didn't make us stewards of the wind.

Epictetus' fundamental teaching is elegantly simple. However much control you may or may not have over the external events of life (nature included), external events need have no control over your own feelings or perceptions or reactions, over indeed the totality of your inner universe he calls "moral purpose." You alone have control over you. Not even the most cruel suffering or threat of death can change that. Nothing can touch your freedom, provided you know what it means to be free. (And this is a subject Epictetus, the freed slave, knew a great deal about). Even if thrown into prison, even if put to death, all your jailer will have is your imprisoned body; all the executioner will possess is your dead body: you remain free. Epictetus sounds almost like St. Paul, when he makes this point himself: "Who is there left then for me to fear?" (Discourses, Book I. xxix. 6-15)

A few years ago, deep in conversation with a therapist to whom I was then going, after a very long pause, she said: "You really are a Stoic."

To which I said, "Thank you." And smiled.

"That wasn't a compliment," she said.

Well, maybe not in psychological terms. But when it comes to living wisely, when it comes to learning the art of enduring with grace whatever life brings, you really can't do much better. And that's another lesson my grandmother taught me.


*The edition of Epictetus I prefer is the Loeb Classics, Harvard University Press, edited with English translation by W.A. Oldfather. It provides Oldfather's venerable and serviceable translation opposite the original Greek. Because Epictetus' Discourses are in common street Greek, the very same Koine Greek we meet in the New Testament, anyone with basic seminary Greek should find him very accessible.

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