When we are no longer
able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.
– Viktor Frankl
(Man’s Search For Meaning)
In the movie ‘The Week Of’, Isaac the boy had to sit on a bench when his baseball coach ushered the team into the field, saying, ‘Everyone’s a winner! Every day’s the World Series!’ Isaac’s big family on the bleachers started booing the coach for making him a reserve. Embarrassed, Isaac gestures at them to stop. As they kept chanting ‘Isaac! Isaac!’, the coach relented and let him have a go. Upset by the fuss and about to burst into tears, Isaac enters the field, amidst even more cheers. His Father yelled, ‘It’s just a game! Don’t worry about it! Whatever happens, everyone loves you!’ Unconfidently, Isaac barely managed to lightly tap the ball with his bat on the third strike, and by an accidental clash of two catchers who did not catch the ball in time, he manages to win his run. His family continues cheering, even raising him up… while he shrugged in bewilderment.
Though a comedy, there are some important lessons here. The coach tried to motivate his team by saying they are all winners, and that the game is as crucial as an international match… while Isaac’s Father also motivated him, however by downplaying its significance, saying it is just an inconsequential game, whose results will not lessen affection for him. It was up to Isaac whose perspective to take, or to have his own. Of course it is just a simple game, that probably will have little impact him and his family. Yet, should he not go all out to win, as if it is the match of his life? How about just being in the here and now, to do his best, instead of being pressured by clashing expectations and possible outcomes? Such focus would make him more mindful, and possibly win, instead on being too distracted by winning to play well. Even losing this way would be enjoyable.
Although Isaac did not play spectacularly, he did play well enough to win, with the unwitting ‘help’ of the bumbling catchers. It turned out that his worries were unfounded, while he could had played better if he did not worry. His family’s booing (of the coach) and cheering (for him) surely expressed much of their great expectations for his performance. Yet, these utmost expectations were also forms of utmost encouragement. Isaac could choose to see them more as uplifting encouragement than as pressurising expectations – or simply disregard them, so as to play equanimously, with more peace of mind, without being distracted by aversion to defeat or attachment to victory. If Isaac had adequately stoical presence of mind, he should had realised that while he could not really control the coach or crowd, he could control how he perceived them, while not being controlled by them.
As Viktor Frankl wrote, ‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ And as Epictetus taught, ‘The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters, so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself, to the choices that are my own…’ Paradoxically, it is by recognising the limits of our control of external factors, that we can take fuller control of what we can truly and personally control – our choice and manner of thought (as motivation, perception and attitude), word and deed, as action and response – for gaining greater control. This is our primary, ongoing and final freedom.
You could leave life right now.
Let that determine
what you do and say and think.
– Marcus Aurelius
How About Being A More Buddhist Stoic?