Steal Something from the Thief
Patient stoic mindfulness is the practical alchemy that transforms misfortune into character-building blessings. The Duke of Venice breaks off a little piece of this pelfish science to Brabantio when that good man bemoans the loss of his daughter to the marriage bed of Othello. “To mourn a mischief that is past and gone,” counsels the Duke, “is the next way to draw new mischief on. What cannot be preserved when fortune takes, patience her injury a mock’ry makes. The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief; He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.”
Bootless grief. That’s an apt description of Count Rostopchin in today’s chapter and it’s all because he can’t apply the Duke of Venice’s advice. The Count is “distressed, offended, and surprised” that he has not been invited to attend Kutuzov’s latest council of war. Then, when Kutuzov writes asking him to furnish troops to help facilitate the evacuation of Moscow — something Rostopchin knows must happen — he gets even more irritated. Finally, as he tends to his administrative duties he gives brief and angry replies to his underlings. These are not the reactions of a well-balanced man.
Our question, then, is how to be a little less Count and a little more Duke?
From the very beginning A Year of War and Peace has suggested that we be careful to distinguish between those things that are within our control and those things that are not. Clearly this is something Count Rostopchin has been unable to do. “Though he knew it was coming,” writes Tolstoy, “he did not till the last moment wholeheartedly believe that Moscow would be abandoned, and did not prepare for it.” Even when he knows something bad is going to happen he’s still unable to prepare for it. He still cannot categorize it as something either within or without his control and respond accordingly. What if, however, unlike the Count, we are able to distinguish between what is and what is not under our control? How should we react to personal misfortune that we have no control over? Fortunately, adversity carries within it its own cure.
Remember that each battering assault of misfortune, if properly defended against, builds up an attractive callus to protect against future attacks. With this in mind it becomes not only possible but encouraged to greet adversity with a smile and steal something from the thief.
No tree becomes rooted and study unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley.
Seneca, De Providentia