Lessons From Life and Literature

Day 48 of A Year of War and Peace

Your only power over her is your response to what she wills

are weak creatures, exercising a vanishingly small power over the events of the world. About two weeks ago, for example, my five-year-old son had to undergo an appendectomy. There was nothing I could do to stop the development of his appendicitis. The only thing I could control was the decision of whether or not to take him to the doctor’s office when he complained of a stomach ache. I did take him and before I knew it we found ourselves in the pediatric emergency room of the hospital waiting our turn to undergo lab tests to either rule out or confirm the appendicitis. That’s when I witnessed something that illustrated at once the true helplessness of humanity as well as our only and greatest strength.

My son had just fallen asleep when I heard one of emergency room doctors call out that they had a six-month-old coming in under cardiac arrest. A set of nurses immediately prepped the bed right next to me. Less than a minute later an Emergency Medical Technician burst through the pediatric emergency room door with a lifeless baby girl in his hands. He laid her on the bed next to me and the entire room scrambled to provide her care. The baby’s parents soon followed. Their look of panic and horror as they watched is something that will never leave me.

Consider the language we use when speaking about our children. We raise them. They’re our responsibility. This is a language of control. But as I watched that baby’s parents look on in agonized helplessness as she expired I learned by brutal example the stoic lesson that so very few things are under our control.

But this horrible experience did provide an example of the one thing we do have control over: our response to events. The response of the emergency room medical team that awful day was a superlative display of mental strength, fortitude, and professionalism. First, they employed all their powers to save the baby girl. When that proved to be an impossible task, not one of them broke down. Instead they executed their duties just as they would have had nothing happened. The nurses cleaned the bed and prepped it for the next patient. The doctors returned to their other patients. A hospital social worker came to tend to the mother whose howls of anguished misery called forth from the adjacent room for hours after.

I’m sure everyone in the room that day felt the same horror and sorrow I did. What the staff’s actions showed me was that while they exercised no ultimate control over whether or not the baby survived, they did have control over how they responded to it. It was a truly inspiring display of professional conduct and grace.

My experience in the pediatric emergency room illustrated how vital it is to employ the things under our control properly. The things under our control are, as Epictetus teaches, opinion, motivation, desire, and aversion. That’s it. So little. These things are precious. They should be tended to with the utmost care and sagacity. To cede control of them to others or to abandon prudent governance over them is to betray yourself.


In today’s chapter Pierre betrays himself. He sacrifices the one true thing he has control over: his response to events. He understands that everyone expects him to marry Helene. But he also knows it’s a bad match for him. Instead of exercising his one true source of power and declining Helene’s hand in marriage he surrenders his decision to others, assigning blame to a bogus fatalism. In fact, he never even asks Helene to marry him. He just accepts Prince Vasili’s congratulations on their engagement as evidence that they are actually engaged. Six weeks later he’s married to the wrong person.

This is Pierre at his weakest and most disappointing.

If someone handed over your body to any one he met along the way, you would be angry. But you are not ashamed that you hand over your judgment to anyone who happens to come along, so that, if he abuses you, it is disturbed and confused?

Epictetus, Enchiridion

This is the forty-eighth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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For my friends and family, love. For my enemies, durian fruit.