Under no circumstances ever say “I have lost something,” only “I returned it.” Did a child of yours die? No, it was returned. Your wife died? No, she was returned. “My land was confiscated.” No, it too was returned.
“But the person who took it was a thief”
Why concern yourself with the means by which the original giver effects its return? As long as he entrusts it to you, look after it as something yours to enjoy only for a time – the way a traveller regards a hotel.
This chapter is tough to accept, and we faced the same issue in earlier chapters. After all, it sounds almost pathological to think as a dead child as “returned”, and this is one the biggest misconceptions that plagues Stoicism, that Stoics are emotionless beings that couldn’t care less about whether you live or die.
Epictetus is definitely not trying to instruct us to think of a child or wife in the same way as a flowerpot, but he is trying to stress the impermanence of everything around us – including our loved ones.
There is no doubt that a we should grieve if we lose a loved one, but, if we wise, then it shouldn’t come as a complete shock that we lost them. After all, that is exactly what happens to all of us: we die.
Trying to comprehend death is a monumental task, because it’s something so permanent, and also something that nobody experiences and then comes back to explain it all to us.
Regardless of our opinion about death, and especially what happens after death, it’s clear that it exists, and that it will be part of everyone’s life, and so it definitely something we should mentally prepare for.
By reminding ourselves to treat everything as a hotel room, something that is temporary, we can actually increase the enjoyment of the present moment. Because we know that the moment is transient, we can take pleasure in the fact that we are actually experiencing it at all, and not take things (or people) for granted.
Epictetus also warns us not to worry regarding the way we return things. Things can get lost, they might be moved, broken, stolen, or simply become less important. We just have to learn that this is a natural process.
One day, everything that we know and care about will be gone. All the most beautiful pieces of art, music, sculpture, all our philosophical works, all the people you know, and all the people who know you. You will disappear without a trace.
And yet, we still wake up everyday and do our thing. Why is that? Why is it that I am writing these very words right now, with the full knowledge that one day they will be completely gone, and nobody will ever read them again? When you think about it, it is almost insane, and yet it’s exactly what life is about. Everything we do is essentially inconsequential, and yet we still attach importance to it.
This is the twisted side of being a mortal being, but we should then turn to our moral compass for guidance. After all, we are here, now, and so we should fulfil the duties that have been given to us by the world.
Whether that means being a good husband, sister, child, friend, enemy, or simply professional, the choice is up to us. In our lives we have multi-faceted roles, and we should strive every day to fulfil, to the best of our abilities, the duties that come from acting in these roles, regardless of the fact that, on a long enough time span, the entire exercise is completely futile.
The cliche that is often banded about is that you cannot live in the past or the future, but only right now. Like most cliches, there is a grain of truth in this one.
If we were to live always thinking about the future, especially the long term future, we would be completely paralysed in our decision making, because everything has both such a crucial importance to the medium term, and then almost no importance in the long term.
Yet we are excellent about forgetting about this long term inconsequentiality, because after all we do live in the now, and there are always urgent matters that always need our attention.
Personally I think we should care about what is happening right now, but we should also remain calm and remember that we’re not so important, and that everything around us will one day be gone.