What Dead Romans Have Taught Me About Dead Batteries and Dead Bodies
A Year in the Death 2/23/21
My vehicle battery died this morning.
I was in the parking lot at our veterinarian’s office in Boulder and left the radio and heat on during our 10-year-old Golden Retriever Athena’s acupuncture treatment. I did so because I had our nine-year-old Golden (Apollo) with me. He’s much more high strung than Athena and was freaking out because he (mistakenly) expected to be taken inside for an appointment after she was finished.
I thought music would help calm him down. And it did. It also completely drained the old battery in my 2011 Hyundai Tucson.
A few years ago, this occurrence would have triggered a strong emotional response in me. I would have been frustrated, angry, full of self-pity — or, most likely, some combination of all three.
I simply got out my AAA card, called the emergency roadside assistance number, and spent the next hour I had to wait until the service vehicle arrived calmly alternating between answering email on my phone, reading the book I had brought with me, and making sure the dogs got some water and exercise.
The chill vibe of Boulder wasn’t responsible for this sedate reaction. A bunch of dead Romans were.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate.
It was the Stoic practices I’ve engaged in over the past few years, all of which have been passed down from those dead Romans, that deserve the credit.
The Stoic Response to Negative Experiences
If I’m going to expound upon how Stoicism has helped me better deal with experiences like this morning’s, I should probably begin by pointing out the flaw in the above heading. For in the Stoics’ worldview, there is no such thing as a response to a negative experience. There is only a negative (or positive) response to an experience.
As Emperor Marcus Aurelius reminds us in the following three excerpts from The Meditations:
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgement now.”
“How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!”
“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
At the other end of the Roman social hierarchy, former slave and leading Stoic Epictetus also had a lot to say on the subject of reacting to events that are outside of your control, including this gem from The Art of Living:
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
Finally, here’s a modern take on this fundamental Stoic principle from Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle is the Way:
“The phrase ‘This happened and it is bad’ is actually two impressions. The first — ‘This happened’ — is objective. The second — ‘it is bad’ — is subjective.”
These, and many other quotes, came to mind this morning thanks to years of daily inner work. And they helped me accept the situation for what it was: an event outside of my control, which meant the only thing I could control was my emotional and behavioral reactions to it.
Today, I passed the test. I don’t always.
Also, this morning’s test was a fairly easy one: a dead battery is not the same as a dead body. But as I’ve written about in earlier posts in this series, the Stoics have helped — and will continue to help — me there as well.
And thank goodness they have and will continue to do so. Because when my body dies one day, AAA won’t be able to help me.
This is part of a year-long series I’ve entitled “A Year in the Death.” As I discussed in my first entry on January 1, I am going to contemplate and write about death each day of 2021. Some days, my thoughts and writings may be detailed essays. On others, they may be little more than the contemplation of a quote about death or a piece of art representing death or dying. Also, I may not share every daily contemplation with you, reserving my thoughts to my private journal. But I am committed to the practice and invite you to follow along throughout the course of the year.