From Vol. 5, Issue 11, November 2023
Righteous indignation vs. the right action
At the coffee shop
Earlier today, moments ago in fact, I was standing at the counter at a Costa Coffee in Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, waiting for the very unnecessary coffee frappé I had just ordered. Ahead of me in line was an elderly woman – I’d guess around 75 or so – who was waiting on three hot cappuccinos. When those cappuccinos arrived, in take-away paper cups with plastic lids (you know the sort), the barista lumped them together in front of the woman and turned back to her coffee-making duties.
I watched this elderly woman move her hands around the cups, trying different grabbing strategies, before she committed to the triangle formation (you know, both hands on either side of the group of cups, kind of pinching the third in place with the outside two). As she picked up this group of cups her hands started shaking. She set them down again and reset, picking them up a second time exhibiting the same shaking under the weight of the drinks.
The barista saw this and asked, “you got it?” (in a tone which I interpreted as annoyance) to which the woman did not answer (likely not having heard her) and proceeded to move away, drinks in hand, towards her table to rejoin her companions, still trembling as she did so.
Before she could get to the table, her shaking became too much and she had to lean herself and the cups on the pastry case glass to stop from spilling what was probably half-a-gallon of 200-degree cappuccino all over herself. Had her daughter (I’m assuming it was her daughter) not come rushing at the speed of sound to her aide, she would have certainly burned herself terribly and, perhaps, even fallen to the ground.
I was so incensed, during the 10-15 seconds that framed these events, that the barista didn’t have the commonsense to offer to carry the woman’s drinks to her table for her, or give her a tray to make carrying them more manageable, or do anything to provide this elderly woman with the help she obviously needed, that by the time I snapped out of my seething judgment of the barista’s character and took a step to rush over to help the woman, her daughter had already reached her.
Up until that moment, I was angry. After I realized my failure to act, I was embarrassed. I was so busy being appalled at the seemingly poor character of another person that I, myself, displayed a vicious character and missed an opportunity to act justly and in service to both the cosmopolis and one of its citizens!
My first instinct was to be appalled, not to help. What does that say of my character? Certainly that I’m no sage, at the very least, and that I have a lot of work left to do on my Prokoptônic journey.
When we judge, we waste time
Judging actions may be your social role – perhaps you are a judge – but, if it isn’t, when you engage in the judgment of another’s actions (to determine whether they are Just or un-Just) you take up time that you could be using to act Justly yourself. Had I not been inclined to engage in the judgment of my barista’s character, I would have more readily moved toward Just action and, perhaps, helped the elderly woman before she found herself at immediate risk of a terrible burn and/or embarrassing moment.
The next time you find yourself focused on the shortcomings of another person’s character, try to remember the story I just told you. Remember my experience and then ask yourself what just action you could be taking if you weren’t focused on judgment and were, instead, focused on exercising the quality of your character. Once you have this answer, move quickly to that Just action and be a boon to our cosmopolis.
This isn’t just something you should want to do – nor is it something you should want to do just for the sake of appearing to be a good person (virtue signaling) – it is your responsibility as a Stoic to become a person who acts Justly.
Tanner Campbell is the host of Practical Stoicism, author of the upcoming book “What Is Stoicism” (co-authored with Kai Whiting), and lead writer of multiple Stoic blogs. You can connect with him at tannercampbell.net or actualstoicism.com