So, here is a different story, so just that we don’t talk about COVID-19 for a few minutes. Last year I got married. (Yes, the photo above is of yours truly with my then fiancee, Jennifer.) We had the ceremony secularly officiated by a friend of ours, and hosted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture, where I host my Philosophy Cafes and Stoic School. We had readings from philosophers (Plato’s Symposium) and literary authors (Jennifer is a Professor of English and creative writing), and my daughter, who had recently graduated summa cum laude and honors in philosophy (yeah, I know, don’t brag too much dad!) brought us the rings.
Nice, right? Except that with 16 days to go to the big event we were unceremoniously dropped by our wedding planner. The details are not important to this story, but let’s say that the person in question had behaved erratically all along, finally getting to the point of yelling at me on the phone simply because I reminded him (once more) that we were awaiting sample pictures of the flower arrangements. At that, I calmly stated that this was not professional behavior, and that I expected better, especially given the non inconsiderable sum of money he had already pocketed from us. He yelled some more and “fired” us. (So far, without returning the hefty sum in question.)
So here was the issue: Jennifer and I found ourselves the morning after, a bright and beautiful Saturday in Brooklyn, without a wedding planner. Which meant no flowers, no food for the guests, no cake, and no personnel to set up and run the event. And this was happening in New York City, a place that goes nuts for this sort of things, and where therefore, presumably, the chances of finding a new planner with such short notice were about the same as those of suddenly uncovering a lost copy of Zeno’s Republic.
How did we react to the sudden crisis? At the cost of publicly patting our collective backs, I’d say pretty darn well. And Stoicism helped. A lot.
To begin with, it shouldn’t be surprising that — when the planner was yelling over the phone — the first thought that came to my mind was:
“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.1)
Clearly, a large part of the situation was not under our control:
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1)
Which, however, was no excuse for inaction! Jennifer’s first comment was something along the lines of: “Well, at least we have two weeks to go. It could have been worse. It could have been one week.” You see, I met Jennifer at Stoic Camp, an annual intensive school of Stoicism that I co-run with my friend and co-author Greg Lopez. She got into Stoicism by way of the American Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau), who were strongly influenced by Seneca & co.
Critics of Stoicism often claim that the philosophy is a quietist one, that the dichotomy of control induces people to sit back and let events unfold as they may. But this was known in ancient time as the “lazy argument,” and the Stoics would have none of that. Sure, the cosmic web of cause-effect will do what it will do. But guess what? Our own decisions and actions are part and parcel of that web. So the message is to get your butt off the couch and start working on solving your problems. The dichotomy only says that you have no guarantee of success, not that you shouldn’t try.
So Jennifer and I set down to explore our options. We began with a premeditatio malorum, an exercise that can be carried out in a number of ways, and the goal of which is to help us contemplate a potentially difficult situation calmly and reasonably.
The first thing we agreed on was that the absolute worst case scenario was a wedding with no food, no cake, and no flowers. But with a band and alcohol… How bad could that be? Were our friends and family coming to join us in order to eat, to admire the flowers, to eat the cake? No. They were coming to support us and share with us a day of joy. Well, then, what was the problem?
But of course that’s the worst possibility. Backtracking from that toward less negative scenarios, perhaps we could ask our friends and family for material assistance and suggestions. Okay, that’s better. But before we resort to that still somewhat drastic step, let’s check Yelp and see if we can find a new planner. True, the chances are slim with so little time to spare, but what are we going to lose by trying?
So we searched, optimistically setting the filters to “high ratings” and “large numbers of review” (because, you know, statistically speaking high ratings don’t mean much if only a few people have posted on the site). The first thing that popped up was a planner not far from us in Brooklyn. We scanned the customers’ reviews. They were excellent.
Next we called, explaining the situation. The nice woman at the other end of the line was aghast that our previous planner had unceremoniously dropped us and left us in that predicament. She said she could help. She connected us with one of the people working with her. By the end of the day we had had a pleasant visit with the new planner, had been treated to wine and snacks, had a new contract signed, and everything was back on track again. Indeed, the obstacle had led us to a new and better way to do things, as we are in fact much happier with the setup.
“Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)
The bottomline is that our Stoic practice did help, enormously. Being dropped by your wedding planner with two weeks to go to the big event could have been very stressful, and we could have gotten irritated at each other instead of collaborating to solve the unexpected problem. The notion of the dichotomy of control, the technique of the premeditatio, and Marcus’ reminder that we should expect some people to behave in a nasty fashion, and yet we should not be affected by that and instead focus on our own responses were all tremendously helpful.
And now we can go back to our scheduled programming: how to cope with COVID-19, the Stoic way.