26 October 2012

Must I Whine as Well?

Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), pp. 271-2:
But even immersed to the neck, a human being has freedom: he or she chooses how to feel about the situation, what attitudes to adopt, whether to be courageous, stoic, fatalistic, cunning, or panicked. There is no limit to the range of psychological options available. Almost two thousand years ago Epictetus said:
I must die. I must be imprisoned. I must suffer exile. But must I die groaning? Must I whine as well? Can anyone hinder me from going into exile with a smile? The master threatens to chain me: what say you? Chain me? My leg you will chain -- yes, but not my will -- no, not even Zeus can conquer that.
This is no minor quibble. Even though the image of a drowning man's possessing freedom may appear ludicrous, the principle behind the image is of great significance. One's attitude toward one's situation is the very crux of being human, and conclusions about human nature based solely on measurable behavior are distortions of that nature. It cannot be denied that environment, genetics, or chance plays a role in one's life. The limiting circumstances are obvious: Sartre speaks of a "coefficient of adversity." All of us face natural adversities that influence our lives. For example, contingencies may hinder any one of us from finding a job or a mate -- physical handicaps, inadequate education, poor health, and so forth -- but that does not mean that we have no responsibility (or choice) in the situation. We are responsible still for what we make out of our handicaps; for our attitudes toward them; for the bitterness, anger, or depression that act synergistically with the original "coefficient of adversity" to ensure that a handicap will defeat the individual.
In Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (available here for free), James Stockdale refers to the same passage from Epictetus, and says the Enchiridion helped him endure the seven and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. From page 7:
On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane -- the cockpit walls not even three feet apart -- which I couldn't steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: "Five years down there, at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus."