Inhabit Your Situation: Epictetus, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Whitehead
Patricia Adams Farmer
Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed.
Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Exert yourself.
Respect your partnership with providence. Ask yourself often, How may I perform this particular deed such that it would be consistent with and acceptable to the divine will? Heed the answer and get to work.
When your doors are shut and your room is dark you are not alone. The will of nature is within you as your natural genius is within. Listen to its importunings. Follow its directives.
As concerns the art of living, the material is your own life. No great thing is created suddenly. There must be time.
Give your best and always be kind.
~ Epictetus ~
Epictetus was a Stoic, and for the Stoics, life was all about choice and responsibility and the art of living. Yes, the Stoics also believed in Fate, which is wholly inconsistent with freewill, but that flaw can be forgiven. No endless debating on freewill vs. determinism at annual academic meetings or red-faced arguing of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Not these guys. Not in those days. The ancient Stoics’ mission in the world was something entirely different; they were born to teach people how to live in the practical world, how to respond with integrity, courage, and kindness in the face of life’s constant changes and traumas. They saw the outer world as something like a vast and temperamental ocean, utterly outside one’s influence and control, and the inner world of the intellect and spirit as the helm of a ship, steering skillfully on a moody and unpredictable sea.
I admire the audacity of Epictetus to create his own inner serenity in the face of his outer powerlessness as a slave in the all-controlling Roman Empire. He was finally freed after Nero’s death only to be banished from Rome by Emperor Domitian (along with all the other philosophers). Here he was, an intellectual, a teacher, a philosopher, and yet he had little control over his life. Epictetus’ daily life hinged entirely on the vicissitudes of the Empire and the whims and moods of its emperors. While he could not control the outside world or his ailing body (he was crippled), he could change what went on inside his soul. Epictetus, if alive today, would totally relate to the Serenity Prayer. Or to Viktor Frankl’s philosophy of life built around the fundamental freedom: to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances.
Epictetus taught his students to “inhabit the situation,” whatever it is. Don’t live in denial or procrastinate or run away screaming. Inhabit the situation. If you think you can’t do a thing, do it anyway. Epictetus would also applaud Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous dictum: "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
In my case, doing “the thing you think you cannot do” was learning to be a caregiver in the face of my husband’s recent, sudden illness. Although he is doing well now, the experience was terrifying for both of us. While he has his own story to tell, as for me, this was my first time in the caregiver’s role. And I confess, I trembled. I trembled with fear and frustration and a sense of woeful inadequacy. If, as Eleanor says, "a woman is like a tea bag--you don't know how strong she is until you put her in hot water," then I was one terrified tea bag.
Yet, this was my calling for two solid months: inhabit the situation, exert myself beyond what I thought I could do physically, and manage the practical day-to-day—practical, not being my forte. As a retired minister, I’m more of the “let us pray” kind of helper. But this situation necessitated that I roll up my cuffs and wade into the unfamiliar. Living, as we currently are, in Ecuador with its different customs and language and hospital protocol, did not add to my comfort.
So, in the beginning, fear inhabited me; that is, until I learned to inhabit the situation. Most challenging of all, I had to deal with my own frightened, rebellious inner child who gets totally ticked off at life’s unjust surprises. Feelings arose inside me that were not me—not my best self, anyway—and yet, they needed attention. If I was to take care of my husband, I had to take care of myself, too. I had two patients: my inner child who was silently screaming about how all this totally sucks, and my husband, the actual patient. I had to journal. I had to breathe. I had to pray. I had to reach out to others. I had to practice mindfulness.
Now I understand. I understand what caregivers go through. I understand the pain and frustration of seeing a loved one suffer, and of the inner terror at the “what ifs,” and ultimately the inner rage at the whole situation—feelings that bubble up inside every caregiver. I understand how fear can take over and inhabit your mind, and that the only way to deal with it is to widen the soul enough to make room for it and care for it. It is to say to yourself, “There, there. It’s all right to feel this way. Now, can we please get busy?”
So, in fits and starts, I became a student of Epictetus, trying to steer things in the right direction on a very dark and scary sea. Caretake the moment, says Epictetus. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed.
This is good philosophy; it is good because it works. My own philosophy, process philosophy, is certainly not deterministic like Stoicism, but it dovetails with Epictetus’ thinking in that it, too, is practical. It works when the chips are down—especially when it comes to the validation of feelings and the raw truth that many things do, in fact, suck. Even God thinks so.
But I am not speaking of the traditional God of the philosophers, for the all-controlling God “up there” who rules the world in mysterious ways doesn’t cut it when you’re watching someone you love suffer. A process view suggests a God who actually inhabits our suffering. Alfred North Whitehead wrote about a God who is “the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.” God inhabits the situation. Like a Zen master; like Jesus; like a mother large with child; like water inhabiting the ocean. You just can’t separate yourself from the love of God because God is not “up there” pulling strings, but rather lovingly at work in the earth, in you body, in the wind, inside cells and molecules and quarks, inside the numbered hairs on your head and the flowers that toil and spin. God inhabits the world, yet is more than the world. Inhabiting the situation is what God does, for God is the very Soul of the world.
The Soul of the world does not cause or "allow" pain and suffering, but rather inhabits it, embraces it with tenderness and lures the diseased body toward whatever kind of healing is possible in the moment—and helps terrified caregivers like me find a way through the trembling. And sometimes, when we’ve done all we can do, and prayed all the prayers of heaven and earth, and still there is no progress, we need to let go of our own attempts at control and trust in a wider Beauty, even a tragic Beauty. Sometimes there is nothing but this to sustain us—nothing but the inhabitation of Cosmic Love, the great companion who understands the depths and heights of what is possible for transformation and healing.
But God needs a partner, namely, you. And me. And the stars. We are all in this together. Even though Epictetus’ God(s) was very different from mine, he nevertheless saw the importance of our “partnership with providence” something akin to the notion of co-creation, which we see in the Bible and in process theology and many ancient traditions. We affect God and literally change the world with every thought we think, every gesture we make. So, as with Epictetus, there is no place for disinterested bystanders—whether it is in caring for a person, or standing up for justice, or creating sustainable communities for future generations. Personal responsibility—including the inner tasks of prayer and mindfulness—will ever be our calling, even when we have to do what we think we cannot do.
Most of all, we have to be patient with ourselves, compassionate listeners to our own inner struggles. As Epictetus says, no great thing is created suddenly. And if we do our best, and do it with kindness, we will learn the art of living.