Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair
Epictetus — an ancient model of practical resilience — was born a slave, to a slave, in a place that is now somewhere in Turkey. One story of his childhood, relayed by modern day philosopher and host of The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday, tells that as a child, a cruel and capricious master bought Epictetus and subjected him to severe abuse. One day, the master grabbed the young boy’s leg and started twisting it with as much force as he could. Epictetus repeatedly said, “You are going to break my leg. You are going to break my leg.” The master continued to twist and the limb gave way with a snap. According to the story, Epictetus then looked at his master and said, “I told you that would happen.” His leg was shattered, leaving Epictetus with a life-long limp and deformity.
Whenever he could, Epictetus began listening to lectures and was particularly fond of the teachings of Musonius Rufus, a stoic philosopher in the Roman senate. Epictetus dedicated his life to helping ease the pain of others through his teachings and ultimately became a teacher himself, a master of modern-day resilience, 2000 years ahead of his time. His discussions with students were captured by one of his pupils and later published as The Discourses. Despite having overcome the harshest of beginnings, the author offers a guide to living an “untroubled” life. Most importantly, Epictetus emphasized that we must always distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot.
“To achieve freedom and happiness, you need to grasp this basic truth: some things in life are under your control, and others are not.” Some things are up to us — our thoughts, opinions and actions — but most things aren’t up to us like, for example, illness, tragedy, a plague, other people’s opinions. Everything — except the contents and character of our inner lives — is none of our business.
It is easier to change how much you care about someone’s negative opinion of you than it will ever be to change that opinion. Epictetus teaches us that although we can’t control the external world, how we choose to see it changes it for us.
“Every event has two handles,” Epictetus explained to his students. “One by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other — that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.”
Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, asks the rhetorical follow up.
“When adversity strikes, a recession hits, a pandemic sweeps across the globe; setbacks, struggles, uncertainties, inconveniences — whatever it is — the critical question is, ‘Which handle will we grab? The one of resentment? Of bitterness? Of anger? Of unfairness? Or the one of forgiveness, of strength, or fortitude, or looking for the good, of looking for what we might do with what has happened?’”
What does this mean? It means that bad things will happen, regardless of who you are, how much you pray or whether you deserve it. But just because something terrible or difficult happened to you — you fought your way off of the welfare system, someone said untrue things about you, a judge made you cry, someone you loved died — -you still need to show up and do what you do brilliantly. You have to be your best self.
Tell yourself, “Yeah, that was terrible, but it all falls squarely in the cant-control folder.” Look at it, study it for ways it can make you stronger or ways it might suggest seeing — and then opening — never before seen doors. Choose your response carefully and then release the reason for the injury. Your response to every single situation, if drafted with a clear head and open heart, will address the suffering right in front of you.
Sometimes the suffering of others is so big, it seems insurmountable. You may not be in a position to alleviate it but, if the universe brought you this person’s pain because of your unique skills, see the opportunity for what it is — -a little chance to up-level. Study up, show up, and, when game day arrives, bring your best self and let ’em have it. When called to the fight, as my friend Cathy says, “Better bring a lunch and a lantern, cause it’s gonna be a long night.”
As a career prosecutor, my job has been to show up for all of the hurt kids, abused women, and grieving parents, thousands of other humans who appeared at my proverbial doorstep for the sole reason that another human being hurt them. I’m sure I failed at that job many times when I couldn’t — or just didn’t — show up with my whole heart.
But there were also times that the awkward cataclysmic collision of our lives threw off shock waves of healing and sparks of life that are still reverberating today. Not too long ago, I was walking along Higgins Avenue and got a surprise hug from a tall and handsome young man that I vaguely recognized. “Remember me?” he grinned. “I’m Thomas. You handled my case.”
Thomas had been sexually assaulted by his adopted parent at age 10 and, though a child is never responsible for any part of sexual abuse, he felt so much shame that during the time I worked with him he was almost unable to talk about what had happened. He couldn’t testify against his abuser, which is often fatal to a prosecutor’s case. I ended up settling the case with a probationary sentence, deciding to spare him the trauma of being forced to relive his abuse in public, in front of his abuser. To my pleasant surprise, the offender graduated from an approved treatment program, got his life together and in the ensuing years became a sponsor for other offenders as they were released from prison, helping them navigate re-entry and their own treatment.
“Thomas! It is so good to see you! You look happy…and well.”
“I think about you all the time and am so grateful you helped me through such a hard time in my life.” Neither of us noticed the cars whizzing by. “I’m in college — about to graduate. I have a girlfriend too and we are planning on getting married.”
A while back, I was asked to be a guest lecturer at a breakfast group, made up of retired locals who get together to keep abreast of current events and maintain connection with their community. One of the early arrivers was Larry Pirney, a famous local artist known for painting western themes in vivid colors generally reserved for the carnival. I’d been a Pirney fan for a long time, since seeing a piece he’d donated at an auction depicting a horse pack train crossing a creek deep in what looked like the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Pirney captured the sunlight in a way that sucked you right into the landscape with such convincing clarity that you could smell the horses’ sweaty leather saddles when you closed your eyes a little. I was transported back to my first back country trip on horseback when I was 9 or 10.
Lately, perhaps because it was close to Valentine’s Day or because his interest had shifted, Pirney’s work seemed to focus more on couples — cowboys embracing cowgirls, kissing and holding each other through protracted country sunsets. Love. On this morning, I noticed a deep sadness about him as he walked his plate of food to his table.
The man who had invited me explained that Larry’s wife Irene was very ill and that her illness has had a devastating impact on the artist. Instead of their usual trek south for the cold season to winter and paint, they had to stay in Missoula this year to accommodate treatment. We were introduced.
“So nice to meet you, Mr. Pirney. I am a huge fan.”
After eating my scrambled eggs, I briefly went through my history and how I unintentionally landed in the law. I moved a lot as a kid; ended up as a single parent on welfare and then kind of fell into the law when a waitress where I worked told me about becoming a paralegal. I mentioned my passion for trial work and prosecution and how, after decades of cases and back-to-back-to-back homicide trials, I got physically sick and couldn’t sustain the level of performance or the stress of the job while navigating the loss of my own son. I completely burned out; took a break and then came back as the elected a few years later.
I spent the next half hour excitedly talking about my role as the elected and some of my new programs — -our beefed-up Special Victims Unit, Secondary Trauma Group, criminal mediation and prosecution-led diversion. I spent most of my time talking a new way of thinking about criminal justice. What if we shifted some of our resources away from the punitive model and allocated funds based on each person’s individual risk and needs? What if we invested our criminal justice dollars where they are going to have the greatest impact, and divest where they aren’t needed? I get really animated when I talk about how much I love my job and the innovative work we are doing.
The group asked lots of questions about the details of importing drugs from foreign countries; the economics of responding to the cartel; and feasibility of eliminating the suppliers by eliminating the demand. I raced through my last slides because we were already several minutes past quit time.
About then, Larry Pirney raised his hand and asked if he could ask me an unrelated question.
“Of course,” I answered, happy to move beyond the drug trade and expecting a question about recidivism rates. Instead, his question went something like this.
“You described being burnt out. Being so overwhelmed by human tragedy, that you didn’t think you could go on for another minute. But here you are, talking to us about all of the great work you are doing; your tremendous responsibilities. You are doing such difficult work but yet you seem so energetic and happy. What’s the difference?”
I wasn’t expecting that. He is right. But what was the difference? I took a second to gather my thoughts.
“I changed my way of thinking. I’ve narrowed down what matters in life and eliminated what doesn’t. As you all know, we only have a single shot at this life, so we must be deliberate about how we spend every single day. I do something that I love. I spend time with my family. I ride my horses. On the weekends I make art. I want my people to do what’s important too. If you are burned out, hungover or numb to your work, you are no good to me. I want you to go camping, volunteer with Habitat, go do what makes you feel alive. Spend time doing what brings tears to your eyes.”
I decided to grab the handle that will sustain the weight of my experience.
I figured out what I could control. The rest of it is not even any of my business.
I finally realized the only thing I can control is my response. And every day I try my best to respond to each event with my mind clear, my heart open, so that I can use my gifts to address the suffering right in front of me — the only place where I can make a real difference. And I pack a lunch and a lantern and respond with all of my might, when it matters.
I grabbed the handle by which it could all be carried.
Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves as the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.