Monday, May 11, 2015

On Expectation and Gratitude - A Stoic reflection on Mother's Day

My flowers? No, they were for my Mom.
But they're lovely all the same.

Yesterday morning I sat with many of my friends in the social hall following mass commiserating about what a disappointment Mother's Day is.  On a day when Mothers should feel honored and special for all that they do, all we could do was complain:

"All I want for Mother's Day is a clean house."
"All I want for Mother's Day is a nap."
"All I want for Mother's Day is for my kids to behave like human beings."
"All I want for Mother's Day is to have my kids at mass with me."

 And everyone together: "Is that too much to ask?"

I'm not sure when things changed for me. I can remember one Mother's Day, in particular, when I was crushed that my husband hadn't even gotten me a flower. The house was always a wreck. Nothing ever went as planned on Mother's Day and invariably, I was working. I think I have cried on every single Mother's Day since I was married. But this year was different.

Maybe it's the Epictetus I read earlier this year. Epictetus (c. A.D. 50-130) was a Stoic philosopher of the Hellenistic period. The Stoics believed in controlling the things that are up to us, (like our thoughts, desires and reactions,) and letting go of things that are not up to us, (like other people and things.) Epictetus would have loved the Serenity Prayer.

This plays out in a few different ways, but by and large the Stoics are known for treating everything generically - nothing is more important than anything else. If your favorite dish breaks, then you should just say, "It was just a dish." and move on. When something that belongs to you passes away from you, be it an object or a person, Epictetus tells us that we should just say "I gave it back." It's almost as if everything is on loan to you. When things come to you, you should appreciate them, but when they pass on, you have to let them go.*

That's a pretty radical position if you think about it. Epictetus takes this position to its outermost limits in The Encheiridion, saying that when you kiss your wife or your child you shouldn't think of them as "yours" but as "a wife" or "a child". That way, it won't hurt if they are lost to you.** I think this goes too far. It denies the incommunicability of the human person (the idea that every person is unique and cannot be replaced), but there are still lessons we can take from Epictetus.

One of the most important lessons Epictetus has for us is Fragment 8 - "Do not seek to have events happen to you as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well."***

Yesterday I realized that because I wasn't expecting anything for Mother's Day, I was not going to be disappointed in the way the day played out. Because of that lack of expectation, everything was a gift and I was more grateful and relaxed than I would have been had I been expecting something specific.

The nap I got, my son and his fiancee coming to Mass with us, the lovely chat with dear friends, the delicious dinner made by my youngest brother, the lovely walk with my husband in the evening --everything was beyond my control and so it came to me as what it should have been: a gift. It was something I didn't ask for but it was given freely as a token of affection.

I think that in the past, I have set my family up for failure. When I expect great things, sometimes I get them. But often times, life intervenes and makes even the best intentions fall apart at the seams. When things happen on Mother's Day like colds, Houdini-Dog escapes, or freezers being left open accidentally, our yelling and tears and hurt feelings don't change those things. They are out of our control and Epictetus would tell us that we should just let them go.

I think he might be right about that. It is definitely a much more peaceful way to celebrate the day.

Want to learn more about Stoic philosophy? Read "The Handbook (The Encheiridion) of Epictetus".

* Epictetus, The Handbook (The Encheiridion). trans. Nicholas P. White (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company: 1983), 12.
** Ibid. 12.
*** Ibid. 13.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. I really wish I could live and think about life this way. In all honesty I do try!