Marietta McCarty

Marietta McCarty

Life Saving Philosophy

Choosing the Glass Half Full

Using Reason to Develop a Positive Mindset

Posted Jul 28, 2011

"Everything has two handles, one by which you can carry it, the other by which you cannot...." We can deal with everything, Epictetus tells us in the Enchiridion, offering two thousand year old encouragement from ancient Rome. Though his classic work in Stoic philosophy is best known as a handbook for tough times, it also serves as inspiration to choose a life-affirming outlook.

Whatever happens, "always remember to turn to yourself and ask what faculty you have to deal with it." Does the situation call for patience... imagination...perseverance...humor? Epictetus counts on the power of our ability to reason. We can think through an event and find the handle to lift it, figure out an approach that will carry us through. It is "not events but judgments on events" that matters. How reassuring to know that we can opt for a positive outlook and make the best of our lives. Examples from recent experience come readily to mind:

Countless community college students of all ages decide to return to school and use their educations to fashion better lives that match their talents and hopes. A woman trades a job ruined by an unsavory atmosphere for a fulfilling one that pays less, and lines up part-time work to bridge the income gap. An athlete sidelined by injury uses his rehab period to coach a recreation league team in the sport he loves. Children grieving along with their surviving parent heighten their concern for each other, joyfully discovering new/old relationships that would not have been forged otherwise. Everything has two handles....

In the July 11/18 issue of the New Yorker magazine, the compelling story of Team Rwanda is beautifully rendered in an article by Philip Gourevitch. Young cyclists take charge of their own lives, determinedly putting behind them Rwanda's history of genocide and civil wars; Tutsis and Hutus ride side by side and thrill a poverty-riddled populace inspired by their accomplishments. Says biker Gasore Hategeka: "We're turning the page to make a new Rwanda. I have no problem with people." Everything has two handles: continue the deadly ethnic conflict or write a new story?


Epictetus nudges us with another tip for cultivating a positive mindset. "Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power.... The chief test: If it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you." How much time and torment is wasted on things that lie beyond our reach? Can you change the weather? What about your age? Can you swap your parents or broker a deal for your children? When the power of reason eliminates huge areas of unproductive worry, we can throw open the door to possibility. What mental approach could Japan's Women's Soccer Team, the "Nadeshiko," use to its advantage in World Cup competition? Tournament most valuable player, Homare Sawa, explains: "With the tsunami and the earthquake in Japan there are a lot of people very troubled. We wanted to give something to these people, if only a little." The team gave it their unified all, and in Grant Wahl's stirring coverage of the championship game reported in the July 25 issue of Sports Illustrated, a fan watching his team's victory in Tokyo exults: "They had a strong mentality to win. They played for Japan and our recovery." 

A clink of a glass half full to teams Japan and Rwanda. Everything has two handles.... It's up to each of us.

Team Rwanda Photo:

Women's World cup Photo: AP Photo/Michael Probst

About the Author

Marietta McCarty

Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.

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