Stoic Week 2015 (Tuesday): Reservations About Reservation

You say this might help with the anxiety, eh?

You say this might help with the anxiety, eh?

There are a lot of things in this world that are out of one’s control at any given moment. The weather. The economy. Bears. Buddy. Sometimes, it’s actually easy to do as the morning’s reading suggests today and wish “with reserve” when it comes to those things — it’s simply so obvious that there’s nothing to be done about them that it’s not much trouble simply to throw one’s hopes to the wind and try to roll with whatever the day brings.

There are other things, however, that it is much more difficult to accept our inability to control, primarily because these things look as if somehow, in some way, they ought to be up to us.

Imagine that you have worked at the same job for a long time. Imagine that you were good at it, and that your employer has no cause for complaint. Now imagine that, for reasons having nothing much to do with you at all, that job is taken from you. Your position or department or branch office is simply eliminated…resources need to be re-allocated, specifically away from you. Prior promises or commitments mean nothing. Former and present successes mean nothing. It’s not personal — you’ve done nothing wrong, but the needs of the institution outweigh all else. This is, from the institution’s point of view, entirely reasonable and understandable — they are not obligated to hire or retain anyone except in accord with their needs, so it’s really a bit foolish to be surprised or angry when they make choices of this kind (you’re still angry, though, and hurt, and betrayed, and anxious, and afraid…).

Welcome to the life of anyone who’s ever been downsized, “right-sized,” or prioritized out of a long-held and much-loved job. One reason a situation like this feels especially bad is because it does seem to be something that ought to be up to us — the rules of the game as given imply that it should be (do x, follow the rules, stick around).

Of course, the Stoic attitude is right — it is a mistake, in this situation, to be hung up on something one cannot control. Letting go of the hurt and the sense of betrayal, once you realize that there truly is nothing to be done about it, isn’t impossible. It is strange, and a bit difficult to let go of one’s old understanding of the rules of the game, but it’s a good learning experience — this, too, whatever it is, can be taken from you at any time, and there’s really no point in hanging on to anger or fear or hurt about it. As Epictetus advises in the Encheiridion (passage 11),

Never say about anything, “I have lost it,” but only “I have given it back.” Is your child dead? It has been given back. Is your wife dead, She has been given back. “I have had my farm taken away.” Very well, this too has been given back. “Yet it was a rascal who took it away.” But what concern is it of yours by whose instrumentality the Giver called for its return? So long as He gives it you, take care of it as of a thing that is not your own, as travellers treat their inn.

Yet those are hard words to hear when whatever it is — family, farm, job — is taken from you. They are also hard words to hear when you find yourself compelled to wonder about the justice of what’s been done to you. The Stoic attitude doesn’t seem to leave much room for appeals, for prosecutions, for the redress of genuine grievances; indeed, it seems to undermine the very idea that there is any grievance at all. Let go, move on…even if some compelling good end might be served by not letting go, by calling the police, by filing that lawsuit, by making that complaint. When my undergraduate students read the Encheiridion, this passage is one of the points at which they simply can’t buy what Epictetus is selling — they cannot imagine simply letting go of a spouse or a child like that. It contradicts their every notion of what it means to be a parent or a partner in the first place. It stands squarely against the existence of a world in which redress for grievances is socially, politically, and personally important — the world in which they happen to live.

To love with reservation hardly seems like love at all.

This goes for what comes after the downsizing, too. On the one hand, it is probably very good advice for the sake of the job-seeker’s peace of mind to let go, to not be too deeply invested in whether or not a given application or query is answered in the way one would like, to want things to go as they do go. Yet it is bad job search strategy to imply to one’s prospective employers that whether or not they hire you is a matter of complete indifference to you — the person they want to hire is often not just the best qualified candidate, but also the one most likely to actually take and want the job. It is a waste of a search committee’s or HR professional’s time and energy to interview someone who is just trolling for offers to negotiate a better deal with someone else, or someone who really just doesn’t seem to care about the institution or the job itself. They seek to fill a need, and it seems absurd to ask them to forego that need in order to fill it, just as it seems absurd to expect the job seeker to deny her own need for a job in order to get a job.

Perhaps the distinction between things we cannot control and things we can — and with it the concept of “reservation” — needs a small refinement. Our role models here are Emperors (whose frustrations and privileges are far removed from those of, say, a middle-class salaryman/woman who’s lost a job) and slaves (whose wishes must always be reserved). In the messy middle, where many of us live, it might be better to emphasize the knowledge of the impermanence of any and all things without the expectation of detachment in response to impermanence.

Know that this is a thing you will lose — love it fully, just the same, but love it knowing that it is temporary. That’s not the same as detaching oneself from the things one might otherwise adore. Rather, it’s a matter of loving the impermanence of the beloved as a part of what makes it what it is (which may be a more Buddhist than Stoic sentiment, but I think it makes sense as an exercise of reason that a Stoic can appreciate). This may leave room for seeking justice or redress, but not out of a sense of hurt or a feeling of being entitled to recompense by virtue of the depth of one’s attachment. Instead, the lover of the temporary (the Stoic) may seek redress based on some rational principle; this is, arguably, how Kant took up and extended his understanding of the Stoics in his moral theory.

Hmmm. Still thinking about this. Time to go write some more cover letters…


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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