CM Magazine Cover
From Vol. 1, Issue 10, October 2019

Everyday effort: walking the walk


View PDF Back to Latest Issue

Sittting vigil at the bedside of a dying woman is where I’ve spent the past several months. I held her hand as she desperately cried out for “mama.” I did my clumsy best to soothe with reassuring whispers or a cool cloth a once gregarious matriarch now mute, writhing, and coiled inside herself. There were oozing bed sores to tend, soiled diapers to change, and rank sheets to launder. Dying can be so brazenly ugly. Its immodesty and unpredictability make one shudder. A helpless and cruel tedium suffuses each indeterminate day. 

But, wait a second. This is not only how it is supposed to be, but also the kind of death many of us would hope for. The dying woman, my cherished mother-in-law, lived a rich and meaningful life for 93 years. She loved deeply and widely, her love exponentially returned. She single-handedly raised five adoring sons. Her work life had been gratifying. She travelled, read, gave extensively to her community. Her mind never diminished a jot, and she was in optimal health till the end. Also, she was dying simply of old age: at home, surrounded and tended by her family. Later today when we gather for her memorial, legions of friends, who considered Ann their best friend, and an enormous extended family are flying in from all corners of the country to honor her. 

The problem is that across these past months I’ve felt like a Stoic flunk-out. My beloved Epictetus enjoins me to distinguish between what I can control, and what I can’t, and to attend to and act from the former. I am supposed to “harmonize my actions with the way life really is,” to “accept events as they occur.” On page 7 of my book The Art of Living, an interpretation of Epictetus’ key teachings, it says 

Remember….when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. 

The truth is I am not the least bit tranquil right now and I really wish Ann didn’t die. I love Ann and I want her back. Have my Stoic principles altogether deserted me? Should I simply invoke the “correct” Stoic understanding and will it to overwrite my searing grief? After all, philosophy on the page, however compellingly expressed, is useless unless it informs our real quotidian moments and changes us for the good in the trenches of real life. 

No, I’m not a bad Stoic. Stoic thinking and acting have mightily sustained and elevated me these past fraught months. Despite my proximate feelings of the moment, roiled and raw, my thinking is rooted in a much larger and powerful matrix of Stoic wisdom. Fundamentally I accept that death is a natural part of life. I know I can’t control its inevitability. I know, deep in my bones, that really everything is okay. All is and will be well, because Epictetus keeps my eye on the prize: cultivating virtue and doing and giving the best I’ve got in the current moment. 

Everything is okay. 

Sharon Lebell is the author of The Art of Living and is a member of our Advisory Board.