Applied Stoicism–My Story

I made peace with myself today.  Stoic-wise I gave thought to the following situation: whether an action I had taken was wrong, given that I am reaping certain non-desirable rewards from it, the loss of about $2000.00 to be precise.  I analyzed whether I had acted with reason and in a way that I would repeat.  If not, then I was prepared to realize that it was an incident in the past and therefore beyond my control to undo so that further thinking would be pointless thinking; however, my thoughts led me to understand that if I had acted otherwise, the conclusion would not have been satisfactory to me, that I did have my reasons, and they were not flawed, and there was something of value in the choice.

I saw the white van veering over the double yellow line heading into my lane.  My slamming on the brakes, honking, and attempting to veer on the shoulder-less and narrow road deflected the impact only a little; the van hit my car and sheered along the side.  I crawled out of the passenger door, as mine wouldn’t open, saw the damage and cursed repeatedly and loudly.  Perhaps short bursts of cursing are not ideally Stoic—I am more concerned in my Stoic practice with things that disrupt my general tranquility and a choice word or two now and then seems innocuous.

In this common convergence of the twain, enter John.  He emerged from his van and slowly crossed the street and walked toward me as if the pavement might change beneath his feet with each step.  Having reached speaking distance he apologized in a muffled voice.  He moved his lips and mouth in a slow roll like the last chewing before swallowing, but it was continuous.  I smelled alcohol and I told him that he had been drinking.  He was very matter of fact in telling me that, yes, he had.  And he asked me not to call the police.  I already had made the call.

By the time the police came, John had returned to his van and was fumbling through his pants’ pockets to find his wallet to give me insurance information and a business card.  His painter’s pants were slipping down as he leaned over to the driver’s seat searching for his wallet that was on the passenger seat right in front of him.  I thought how vulnerable a person would be in that state; a robust man, he nonetheless could have been robbed, pushed around, tricked by anyone.  He kept turned while the cop talked to me.  This cop, a specimen combination of laziness, ineptitude and stupidity, was a boon to John. The cop came ready willing and able to undo what I had started in motion by calling the police in the first place.  He leaned out of his car window and said that his making a report wasn’t necessary; no one was hurt; we could just exchange information.

I saw, then, that I could at that moment send John to or save him from jail.  I could prevent him from being handcuffed, posting bail, finding and paying a lawyer, having his license suspended, appearing in court, receiving some sentence that in one way or the other would be a hardship not only to him but to at least one other person. Now, there will be those who believe that John should have gone to jail—he’s a drunk driver, and might kill someone; he is breaking the law  and must be punished and learn; maybe he could get started with AA while in jail.  It was 12:30 in the afternoon and this man is an alcoholic, not a party-goer who should have known better.  Jail and the criminal justice system is not the place or approach to deal with alcoholism.  This I know.  My belief was tested in the days to come, however.

I came to learn that Officer Dudley–Do- Nothing should have taken a report because without a report establishing that I had not contributed to the accident, I would owe a thousand-dollar deductible and would not receive any reimbursement for the costs of a rental car that I needed for over a week while my car was being repaired.  I called to get one drawn up after the fact.  Here John failed me; his statement to the cop was that I sideswiped him.  I called John to ask in amazement how he could have said such a thing; to which he responded that he thought it didn’t matter.  I strongly contradicted that belief and I might have convinced him otherwise. As before, he spoke in very quiet, beaten-down tones and with appreciation in his voice, and said he would retract it.  There is a lot of time for a slip between the thought and the deed when dealing with our cop in question; being so very busy, he is not easy to reach. Even if he got the revised statement, he might have ignored it because he has a hard time using the computer to amend complaints, as I found out when I went to the station to compel him to include in an amended report a statement by a witness (not particularly a helpful one, unfortunately).  I spent an hour at the station for what turned out to be a useless amendment; it still called me a contributing factor. In addition to finding the computer a challenge, he had a tough time with the concept of numbering the pages of my statement when I went past one page. He was perplexed: could that second page be “2 of 1”?  For some reason he thought it should be “2 of 2” and there was no bringing him to an understanding of the abbreviation for “the second page of the first statement”.

I learned recently that apparently John did not reach him.  Now John is the one hard to reach.  His friend, who answers his cell phone, says John can’t make any calls until the end of the month.  I believe he must be in jail because there is no other place on the planet without cell phones.  When he is at liberty, will John actually go to all the effort that it takes to get Officer Incompetent to make an amended report?  Especially when I am told that John would need to come in to the station to do that.  This procedure the Sarge offered in a jocular tone, as if nothing should be easier to do: “Just have him come in and write out an amended statement.”  The simple Sarge did not add that such an appearance would need to occur when the Sarge in charge and Officer Befuddled are on duty (and I use that term loosely).  He also seemed not to note that I had spent an hour trying to get an amended statement. Sure- John, spend some time at the station, at appointed hours, and incriminate yourself for me.

I think that the chances of establishing the truth about the collision are little.  I had a bout of self-reproach and regret yesterday, declaring to myself my stupidity in protecting this guy to my detriment.  Of course, at the time I did not know how great the amount of my detriment would be. If I had known, I asked myself, would I still have done what I did?  On the one hand, given that John has in effect betrayed me, I have thought I was very wrong to protect him.  Then I realized that I would have had to watch as Officer Sloth handcuffed and put John in the police car.  His van would have been left sitting there — no it would have been impounded.  I hate that system; I hate the many layers of punishment; I hate the uselessness of every step of it to “cure” an alcoholic.  So there was my peace, my tranquility restored; I did not participate in somethingthat I know is wrong and that I hate.  I reasoned myself into feeling okay.  All of that is worth two thousand dollars.

This Living Hand



I am posting this poem by John Keats for two reasons.  The opening words of the poem are the inspiration for the name of this blog and it conveys an essentially Stoic message of the greatest importance to living well.

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—

I hold it towards you.

Seneca expressed the importance of directing our thoughts on the present and on matters over which we have control and for which our minds would not be engaged in pointless thinking; simply stated, there is nothing more pointless than thinking pointlessly.  By ruminating on the past, over which we have no control, or hoping about future events that depend on circumstances that also are in whole or in great part out of our control, we pursue pointless thinking and, with regard to the future, we also prepare the way for disappointment.  Those are not the only ills attendant on ruminating and hoping; those kinds of thoughts necessarily divert out minds from the present, from the living moment.  While thinking about the hand that has been withdrawn or the one we might hope to touch in the future, we miss the one that is held out to us now.  Everything we have is on loan from fortune, but there is still much at this moment, within our control, within our grasp.

As I contend with various losses that I have experienced lately and others that are imminent, I try to exert my reason to not accord the past and the future what I owe to the present.