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From Vol. 3, Issue 3, March 2021

Obstacles as Opportunities for Practicing Virtues


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Every annoying person is a chance for patience, kindness, and forgiveness. Every challenging situation is a chance for perseverance and hard work.

Pain and Provocation: Great Opportunities for Virtue

For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate. – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 4

Thanks to Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way, many aspiring Stoics are aware of Marcus’ famous line,

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. Meditations, 5.20

We can turn seeming adversity into an advantage by using it as practice. As warrior-philosophers, we use these situations to practice being the best we can be. 

While other people see adversity as bad, as something preventing them from achieving their goals, we recognize the opportunity for growth and flip it around – we see opportunity where they see evil.

Disease is not an impediment to the will

“Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses,” explains Epictetus.

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. – Enchiridion, 9

Epictetus had a lame leg, and he decided to look at it as an impediment to the leg, not the mind. Pain and sickness, too, are to the body, not the mind. We must not allow to be taken over by self-pity. Such a self-indulgent response will only increase our suffering.

Instead, we want to remember that pain can be an opportunity to test and improve our virtue. We can practice patience and endurance – two noble strengths.

Marcus agrees,

Who is there to prevent you from being good and sincere? We have the inborn power to choose our actions and craft our character. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power – integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. – Meditations, 5.5

We can display so many great qualities without any excuse. The only thing that can hold us back is ourselves, because our mind is always available.

Making use of every obstacle

Just like nature can take every obstacle and turn it to its purposes, says Marcus, so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal. – Meditations, 8.5

We should start with small things, says Epictetus. If we have a headache, we can practice not to curse. If it’s abusive words, we can practice patience. And he underlines that if we complain, we must make sure not to complain with our whole being.

Let’s remind ourselves that every minor accident that happens to us presents an opportunity to practice virtuous behavior. Every headache is a chance not to curse. Every attractive person is a chance for self-restraint. Every annoying person is a chance for patience, kindness, and forgiveness. Every challenging situation is a chance for perseverance and hard work.

Awareness of the present moment

Finding opportunities to practice our virtues requires a certain awareness in the present moment. When we’re unaware, we’re quick to judge a seeming adversity as such and won’t be able to turn it around. Unless… we can find a mindful moment and become able to step back from the judgment, test it, and respond as we wish to. With our chosen virtue.

Which situations often cause a troubled mind in your own life?

Do you find a way to practice your virtues when you’re in a similar situation next time?

Jonas Salzgeber of is the author of The Little Book of Stoicism.