“In life our first job is this, to divide and
distinguish things into two categories:
externals I cannot control, but the choices
I make with regard to them I do control.
Where will I find good and bad? In me, in
my choices.” ~ Epictetus
The rain began to fall, and far from home or an umbrella, I had to quickly decide how to proceed. I had my husband’s headphones and couldn’t easily protect them from the rain, so I raced to a spot beneath a thicket of cedar trees and thought. Because I had my phone with me, I was able to post to our neighborhood Facebook group about my dilemma. Shortly, a neighbor appeared with an umbrella, and I was able to get home only a little damp and laughing at the mess I had gotten myself into. As Epictetus reminds me, there are things I cannot control (the rain), but my job is to choose how to handle what I can control (checking the weather, taking an umbrella). Of course, there are bigger choices we make, and in those, I can be sure to find good and bad.
Saddened at the actions of another person, I tried to explain to myself and to others that the person wasn’t really a bad person. When someone suggested I remove my rose-colored glasses, I took a step back, albeit a bit wounded, and tried to see things with a more realistic eye. What did I see? Humans make choices, and in them, I will find both the good and the bad of which Epictetus speaks. People make choices that are much bigger than taking an umbrella, and while there is often a good reason for bad choices, we can generally look at the consistency of their actions to decide if they are the kind of person we want as a regular part of our lives.
Why do we make the choices we do and is it possible to change? We make choices like forgetting our homework or permission slip for the field trip because we get in a hurry or have decided to do something more fun instead of getting our things in order for the next day. And of course, it’s possible to change. An adult can help a child develop the good habit of having a checklist each day to be sure important papers aren’t forgotten. That will be a lifelong gift for making better choices. I am not a child, though, and I find that even as an adult I get in a hurry or decide to do something more fun and forget to return a phone call or even pay a bill. It happens. These choices are not defining whether we or our children are good or bad people, simply whether we need to slow down and take better care of responsibilities.
What about when the choices are bigger than forgetting an umbrella or forgetting to pay a bill one time? I find myself going back to the words of Epictetus, a man who lived in the first century — 50 AD – 135 AD. Recognizing that in every day there are things to which we will most likely have to react or respond, I know that we will choose well or we will choose poorly. It is, I believe, how we react or respond to our own poor choices that will define who we are.
There are good people who make poor choices in the heat of the moment and then try to fix or undo what they’ve done because it bothers them. (Some of us are probably too concerned with righting our wrongs, I realize, but I believe it speaks to our core values). There are other people who make poor choices and never notice, are never bothered by what their choices do to other people. Dear Epictetus, thank you for reminding me that even in the beginning of our calendar there were good and bad choices and people. May I strive today to make the best choices, and when my choices are poor, may the good in me recognize it and do better.