Sometimes the Bear Eats You
In the Coen brothers classic The Big Lebowski The Stranger imparts a little far-from-Eastern wisdom to The Dude, comforting the long-suffering hero with the sage insight that, “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes, well, he eats you.”
Right now the bear is feasting on the Muscovites. They’ve been pushed out of their mother city and are now, rich and poor alike, surviving in huts alongside the road away from the capital. They are tired. They are upset. Moans and lamentations from the wounded pollute the air. Then, one night, looking back at Moscow, they spot the demon glow of fire as their city starts to burn.
Human suffering and how to negotiate it has been a major theme of A Year of War and Peace. This is, after all, a project about a Tolstoy novel. You’re just as likely to read about suffering as you are to read a preposition. One thing we’ve learned along the way, if it wasn’t already clear from our own experience, is that suffering is inextricably linked with existence. Misfortune, to quote Schopenhauer, is the general rule. If this were not the case then we wouldn’t have sickness, old age, death or reality television. Sometimes the bear eats you.
One approach to confronting the bear that is eating you is to reflect that the situation is either one designed by God and full of providence or the result of the random play of indifferent, arbitrary atoms. Either way the power of control lies wholly without your own authority. You’re only a part, and a small one at that, of the whole.
For the foot I shall say that it is according to nature for it to be clean; but if you take it as a foot and as a thing not detached (independent), it will befit it both to step into the mud and tread on thorns, and sometimes to be cut off for the good of the whole body; otherwise it is no longer a foot. We should think in some such way about ourselves. What are you? A man. If you consider yourself as detached from other men, it is according to nature to live to old age, to be rich, to be healthy. But if you consider yourself as a man and a part of a certain whole, it is for the sake of that whole that one time you should be sick, at another time take a voyage and run into danger, and at another time be in want, and in some cases die prematurely. Why then are you troubled? Do you not know, that as a foot is no longer a foot if detached from the body, so you are no longer a man if you are separated from other men. For what is a man? A part of a state, of that which consists of Gods and of men; then of that which is called next to it, which is a small image of the universal state.
Epictetus, The Discourses