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 traveler regards a hotel.
Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 11.
One of the joys of philosophy is its ability to act as a guide through the perils and pleasures of life, its determination to go to some of the deepest and hardest places in order to shine a light, grasp a meaning and ameliorate the condition of the soul.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the above passage by 1st century Stoic philosopher Epictetus ever since I read it about a year ago.
On the one hand it sounds cold and insensitive, dealing as it does with one of the hardest aspects of being human – coping with loss, particularly that of people you love. The philosopher appears to simply say “Get over it” as a means to deal with hardship, where the mental, philosophical observation of "return" is somehow meant to ease emotional pain.
We ought to reflect that Epictetus lived in the Mediterranean world at the height of the Roman Empire, a time when patriarchal culture ruled, war and masculinity were accepted and celebrated, and emotions considered a weak part of being human, unworthy of the loftiness of reason. It's a good thing by all measures that 2000 years later Western culture is no longer as dominated by the masculine.
Yet I still find what Epictetus says remarkably wise and current.
"Return" is about recognising that all beings, all things, come and go. Everything eventually goes back to its source, the great Mystery and seedbed of the universe from which it originally arose. The Stoics called it Nature, the physical-spiritual reality that governs our lives. Through their eyes we see there is no gap between that which is and that which is not; everything belongs to the great turning wheel of the universe and each will have its day in the sun and its darkness.
To contemplate "return" is to understand that there are no separate objects, nothing that is entirely without relationship to something else; and the most important relationship we all have is to the source of our being, which has total claim over us and which will "return" us at the appropriate time. Nothing can be lost because loss implies possession, when all that we have and all the people we love are not really ours to keep, but subject to what Nature gives and takes away from one moment to the next. The philosopher is urging us to acknowledge what we are given, and not to react with recrimination and disappointment when it is taken away: "Look after it as yours to enjoy only for a time."
Being human we immerse ourselves in people, in our work, in ideas and in various material objects that fill our lives. In doing so our identity, some part of ourselves, inevitably comes to reside in many different people and things. When something of value goes, we experience it as a kind of death in us. The greatest challenge that Epictetus poses, I think, is to reshape or reframe the identity-making process; so that not only is some realisation of impermanence anchored in it, but that endings are respected as necessary to the fulfillment of life as a whole. We may grieve, but we must also hold to a vision of continuum in which life is affirmed at each stage of ever-going, ever-coming. And what has passed always leaves some mark, some legacy big or small, whether we are able to see it or not.
I learnt my most profound lesson of return a few years ago when I lived for a time in a mud-brick cottage at the edge of a forest in central Victoria. Animals of all kinds were present both inside and outside the house – at one moment a centipede crawling out of the sink or a rat scurrying in the wall, at another a mob of kangaroos munching on the front lawn or honeyeaters sipping out of the bird bath. Everywhere something living was on the march, doing its thing – running or flying past, eating, defecating, procreating, dying. Loss or death in this environment seemed to not have a hard edge of meaning but was simply a part of the process of life, countless waves of beings coming and going.
In the rounds of life, then, what is lost? Or for that matter, what is gained? With our human way of seeing we necessarily experience reality at one level most of the time; Epictetus is calling us towards a bigger, grander and at the same time more balanced vision.