A Handshake With Life

by Zane Harrison

For our final project in The Good Life, we were asked to write an 8-page paper after choosing from several different prompts. I chose to produce a creative written project in the form of a short story in order to explore the interactions between several of the traditions that the course focused on.

Theo lived a life that would, to an outside observer, seem to be exceptionally pleasant, peaceful, and fortunate. He lived at the foot of a mountain covered in a lush forest where meadows sat quietly, wildflowers bloomed, rivers ran lazily, and the sweet sounds of life echoed throughout the land. His family was small, the four of them fitting cozily in their wooden hut, and his parents were the kind of good people that make you wonder how anyone could manage to live with such calmness, selflessness, and contentedness. But despite this overwhelming, frankly profuse goodness that seemed to permeate Theo’s life, he was a deeply troubled boy.

It began with the death of his newborn sister. When his parents came home from the local hospital, his mother went straight to her bedroom and wouldn’t come out for days. His father wasn’t the same either. His eyes had lost their twinkle, and his laugh its ring. They sat Theo down one day and explained how, despite the doctor’s best efforts, there had been complications that couldn’t be helped. During this hard time, the family leaned into their faith. They went to church on Sundays and continuously tried to explain to Theo, who had become increasingly withdrawn, that this tragedy was not a reason to turn away from their beliefs.

But Theo did not understand. He asked his parents why this had happened. “We know it doesn’t seem to make any sense,” they’d say, “but God has a plan for us, for everyone, that we just can’t understand.” He asked why this plan needed to include the death of his sister. “When we face hard times, we have to put our complete faith into God, into Jesus Christ. Our faith is being put to the test, but we must not lose our trust in God and his plan.”1 When these answers didn’t satisfy Theo, he went to his church and met with the pastor. “Ah yes,” he said, “what you’re asking about is called the Problem of Evil. If God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good, how can there possibly exist evil in the world? Shouldn’t such a being, if it does truly exist, prevent evil and suffering in all of its forms?” Finally, thought Theo, here’s somebody else who understands the absurdity of this faith. “But we have many reasons to maintain faith despite this apparent contradiction. First, realize that God has given humanity the gift of free will, and so we have the autonomy to make our own decisions and to decide how to live our lives. While this is a beautiful thing, free will, by definition, leaves open the possibility for man to misuse it. We use our freedom to build great societies, but also to abuse, conquer, and enslave. Evil necessarily arises from the free choices of man. Second, know that, as humans, we are fundamentally flawed, broken creatures. We are created in the image of God, but we are not perfect beings by any means. Evil and suffering, in all of their forms, give us the opportunity to fix our brokenness, to grow and become stronger, wiser, and overall better people. It is often terrible and tragic, but it is the way that God intended it to be. Finally, understand that evil in the world is temporary. We suffer in this life with the knowledge that, should we do our best to be good despite the evil that exists all around us, we will experience eternal love, peace, and happiness in the life to come, in Heaven. As Christians, we must keep these truths within us and forever hold fast to them.”2

The pastor’s words struck Theo. He left the church and spent some time thinking over what he’d heard. But after many long days and sleepless nights spent wrestling with these ideas, his sister’s death still didn’t make sense to him. If these reasons are enough for some people to maintain their faith and to be okay with tragedy in their lives, then that’s fine. But they aren’t for me, he thought. Slowly but surely, Theo felt himself losing faith in the tradition he’d grown up in, losing faith in the beliefs that had been so important to his family and his community. He felt as if he didn’t belong, like he was an outsider who was silently turning his back on the people who had been so good to him all of his life. After a while it was too much for him to bear, and he felt that he had no choice but to leave. He stuffed as much food and water as he could into a hiking backpack, along with clothes, a few photographs, and a few more basic necessities. He left home one morning before the sun had risen above the mountain at the foot of which he had lived for his whole life. With no destination or an objective or even a clear reason for leaving in mind, he began to climb the mountain.

The trek was steep and challenging, but it was the first time in a long time that Theo wasn’t consumed with grief over the loss of his sister and wasn’t obsessing over the existence of evil in the world. It was refreshing. Spring was in full swing and the path he took was framed by blooming tulips, daisies and daffodils, their colors splashing the ground and feeding his color-starved eyes. He made his way through shaded groves of evergreen trees and through quiet meadows where the only sounds that could be heard were the busy buzzing of honey bees and the songs of birds which had been hushed in the winter but now shamelessly filled the air. Theo found himself smiling once again, his face contorting in a way that felt foreign after so many days spent in a state of constant melancholy. Feeling alive, he happily continued on his way up the mountain, eager to reach the top for the simple pleasure of the journey. The sun lazily made its way across the sky, and by the time it was directly above him, Theo was approaching the mountain’s peak. He could feel the air thinning and trudged forth with renewed vigor, eager to reach the summit and see the world from this point of view. With about an hour’s hike left to the peak, he came across something that caught his eye and made him abruptly stop. A small cottage, its construction simple and pleasing to the eye, sat nestled in the last patch of trees before the high altitude made their growth impossible. He considered walking straight past and summiting the mountain, but something held him back. I could use a nice place to sit down and eat, and my legs are tired too. Why not see if anyone’s home? he thought. Theo stepped off the path he’d been following since dawn and walked towards the cottage. Stopping in front of what appeared to be an ancient, heavy wooden door, he raised his arm and knocked.

Shuffling could be heard from inside, and suddenly the door swung open to reveal a disheveled old man. His glasses sat askew on his crooked nose, his white, wispy hair and bushy eyebrows gave him a funny but strangely scholarly look, and his eyes shone with wisdom, understanding, and something more that Theo could not quite name. He was intrigued. The man invited Theo inside, and they entered a one room abode that was unlike any room Theo had ever seen. Bookshelves covered every wall, their shelves sagging with heavy volumes and their tops stacked with books whose owner had failed to find a home for them amid the overflowing shelves which threatened to break under their burgeoning weight. Loose papers and scrolls covered every surface and spilled onto the floor, making Theo unsure of where to place his feet so as to not disrespect the old man’s property. The two of them sat down in a pair of massive armchairs facing a fireplace and began to talk. The old man introduced himself, explaining that he had once lived in the town that Theo had left that morning but had sought a more isolated, peaceful life and for that reason had chosen to live atop this mountain. Theo introduced himself too and told the man about his life, being careful to avoid mentioning his sister or the reason for his journey here. But the old man saw this and questioned Theo about his motives for climbing the mountain. Realizing that there was no reason to keep anything from this strange old man, Theo began to tell him about the death of his sister and his resulting loss of faith and general disillusionment with life. It was relieving and therapeutic to talk about these things that Theo had kept to himself for so long. He talked for a long time, and when he was finished the old man leaned back in his chair and appeared deep in thought. After some time, he removed his glasses and spoke.

“My dear boy, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. While I too know well the random suffering and evils that life can bring, I cannot imagine what you must be feeling right now.”  Theo thanked the man for his consolation and looked down. The old man continued. “If it is alright with you, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the way that I view life. I am quite old after all, and I have heard, learned, and read a great many things throughout the course of my life. Please allow me to share with you some wisdom I have gained.” Theo nodded and the old man began. “I live my life according to a school of thought known as Stoicism. I believe that it helps me to live with more virtue and wisdom in the face of life’s absurdity. You see I too have faced hardships that have caused me to abandon my faith in a god, and in organized religion as a whole. In response to the evil and suffering that is all around us, I seek to live in accordance with nature and to become a master of myself.3 Stoicism is a broad tradition with many crucial elements, insights, and pieces of practical advice. Here are some Stoic ideas that have helped me the most.

“First, you must know what is within and outside of your control. In life, we are largely subject to external events that we cannot control. We’ll face challenges, encounter successes, experience joys and hardships and tragedies, many, maybe even most of which we can’t directly influence. But what we can control is our reaction to and our perception of these events. We judge what happens to us and the nature of these judgements determines how we feel. In this sense, we both lack control over what we experience in life but are at the same time largely in control of our happiness.4 Please do not think that I am trivializing the tragedy that you currently face. Life can and will be exceptionally difficult, and that is something that we must accept. But what’s also true is that there are practical things we can do in order to ease our suffering and become better people.

“First, we must always be examining our own lives. For me, this comes through journaling. For many years now (and I truly mean many years, just look at how white my hair is!), I’ve made a point to put my thoughts, dreams, hopes, fears, and anxieties into writing, and my life has been infinitely better as a result. Journaling is a practice that familiarizes one with their own mental space, an arena which we always believe we have more of an understanding of than we ever do. My journal is the birthplace of the critical self examination and self reflection that allows me to grow as a person. At the end of the day I sit down with my journal and my thoughts and it is here that I look at my life and cultivate my own wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage.5 And dear Theo, it isn’t just at the day’s end when I put Stoic principles into practice. Each morning when I open my eyes, I engage in a Stoic exercise called premeditatio malorum, or the premeditation of evils. I go through my day in my head, and I imagine all of the ways that things could go wrong. Maybe a storm will blow in from behind the mountain and I will have to put off wildflower picking until another day. Maybe I’ll encounter someone on my morning hike who’s exceptionally rude and angry for one reason or another and my own mood will be soured. Or maybe a flood will come and destroy the cottage I’ve called my home for half a century, leaving me a poor, homeless old man stranded atop this lonely mountain. But there are good reasons for which I carefully consider these terrible things each day. Doing so keeps me grateful for what I have in my life and ensures that I do not take things for granted. It also makes me stronger and helps lessen my suffering when I do encounter difficulties as I have mentally prepared myself to face them. And after engaging in this practice, I can head out into my day certain that I have seen the worst that life can throw my way and knowing that I will be okay even if the worst of these things come to pass.6

“Furthermore, I sometimes take this idea even further by deliberately experiencing misfortune. Some days I’ll hike the mountain and ‘forget’ to bring along my walking stick, or I’ll only allow myself to eat rabbit stew for a day (I absolutely despise rabbit stew!). This both gives me practice with self control and moderation and further convinces me that I could still live a very happy life while having much less than I do now.7 And lastly, my boy, I strive to always monitor and moderate my perceptions. As I’ve explained to you, our experience is a two step process: something happens, and we react. We react based on our perceptions of what has happened, which are in turn based on our beliefs that we have tied to particular events. And as these beliefs and perceptions are our own, we can change them. This is how we can practice exerting greater control over our lives and over ourselves. Turn hardships into learning opportunities, challenges into possibilities for personal development, and tragedies into the chance for growth, and you will be much better for it.8 This, my dear boy, is a small bit of the Stoic wisdom and practices that have been responsible for my contentment in my old age.”

Theo sat leaning forward in his seat with his chin on his hand, hanging on to every word that left the old man’s wrinkled mouth. What he had said resonated with him deeply, and Theo was eager to put the old man’s advice to the test in his own life. But he couldn’t stop himself from asking one more thing: “How do the Stoics recommend dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one?” The old man sighed, a long, tired sigh behind which was decades of hard-fought wisdom. And when he finally spoke, his words came slow and measured. “My dear boy, this is a difficult question, and one which I will try my best to answer well. As I have told you, we must prepare for hardships, and this includes the loss of our loved ones, when we can. The understanding that everything we have is in some sense impermanent will lessen the blow when we do lose the people who we care about in our lives. Beyond this, when tragedy strikes and even the defenses built by our premeditation of evil are not enough to fully quell grief that we find ourselves facing, we must sit with our pain and feel whatever it is that we feel. This is painful, and I wish, my friend, that it did not need to be so. But doing so is the path towards complete acceptance of the reality of life. And finally, we must hold fast to the idea that courage is only truly tested in rough waters. It is easy to be wise, just, temperate, and courageous when the sun is warming your skin, the wildflowers are blooming, and the most pressing worry in your mind is the tartness of the berries you’ve just picked. But the true tests of our virtue come during the dark hours of the night when a storm has blown in and we can’t see into the other side.9 All of these truths are much easier to speak about than to live, but you must keep them within you, Theo.”

Something in his face had shifted. Theo squinted, and then he realized. The old man appeared sad for the first time, and Theo watched as a tear formed in his eye and rolled down his rosy cheek. The two of them sat for some time more and talked until faintly glowing embers were all that remained in the once roaring fireplace. The old man offered Theo an extra bed in one corner of the room which was especially cluttered with loose papers and dusty books, and he slept soundly through the night. When morning came, Theo and the old man enjoyed a breakfast of toast with wildberry jam and leftover rabbit stew (much to the old man’s disgust). Then the old man put a hand on Theo’s shoulder and the two said their farewells. “Go live your life, Theo. Live with passion and kindness, with wisdom and understanding. Be firm but just, and face the troubles that you will no doubt encounter with courage. Above all else, be good.”

Theo thanked the old man, left his cottage, and continued on his upwards trek. Within the hour, he stood atop the mountain that had watched him his whole life, that had watched him learn and suffer and grow. He set down his pack and sat on a rock at the highest point he could find. His gaze traced the mountain ranges that stretched into the distance, and he allowed his mind to wander. The old man’s wisdom still rang in his ears, and he considered what he had said about suffering and dealing with grief. When the sun sank low in the sky, he thought about how he felt.

Christianity and other forms of organized religion certainly work for some people. My family, for instance. And for them, that’s great, I respect their beliefs and the way that they choose to live their lives. But it isn’t for me. Much of what the old man told me resonated with me in a way that other religious teachings have not, and I think there’s something to be said about that. I won’t call myself a Stoic, but I’ll try to incorporate some Stoic practices and wisdom into my own life. In fact, I won’t put any label on what I believe. I don’t think that I need to. From now on, I’ll take whatever insights and practices that I feel I should from other religions and schools of thought, and I’ll keep only what works for me. What else can you do besides pick up whatever wisdom you can from wherever you find it and do your best to use it to live well? I’m not a Christian, or a Stoic, or anything else. I’m just me. Theo felt as if he had finally begun on the long journey towards finding peace with the craziness and absurdity that was all around, as if he had engaged in an elegant handshake with life. He picked up his pack and, with a new sense of readiness and determination to face whatever challenges life had in store for him, he began his long hike back down the mountain.

Zane Harrison is a member of the class of 2024 studying computer science. He enjoys learning about poetry and philosophy, the Duke Gardens, and playing racquetball. He does not identify as Christian.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-problem-of-evil/

[2] https://www3.dbu.edu/mitchell/theodicy_brief_overview.htm

[3] https://dailystoic.com/what-is-stoicism-a-definition-3-stoic-exercises-to-get-you-started/

[4] Atkins, Class Lecture, 2/22/22

[5] Seneca, On Anger,3.26

[6] Aurelius, Meditations Book 2, 10

[7] Whiting, Being Better, 19-20

[8] Atkins, Class Lecture, 2/22/22

[9] Seneca, Consolation to Marcia, 45

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: