02 October 2011

The Second Handle

If you ask me, names are pretty important things.  If you call it Constantinople instead of Istanbul, you're saying a lot. A little over a year from now someone will be calling me Dad instead of Cameron.  That's a pretty big change in responsibilities.  I've had a lot of names in my day, and I've given out my fair share of nicknames and received my fair share of insults in return, so when it comes to names I pay attention.  Coming up with a name for this blog took me a good bit of time.

Chance played a good part in it.  I had the good fortune of having an English teacher who made us recite the poem "Invictus" at the beginning of each and every class.  At the time, I thought that it was probably the stupidest thing any teacher had ever had any student do, but she apparently had a much deeper reservoir of knowledge than my teenage self gave her credit for.  I repeated to myself each morning that I was the master of my fate, and that I was the captain of my soul.  A decade later it would do me some good.

Four or five years ago an obscure reference to Admiral Stockdale sent me on a search of the internet.  I knew that I knew who this guy was, and I knew that he had done some interesting things, but I didn't know exactly what.  Trolling through pages and stories brought me some basic information about him, but more importantly it led to some of his writings.  After his plane was shot down over North Vietnam, he managed to survive years in Hanoi being tortured by the some of the worst men Uncle Ho could throw at him.  He didn't leave a broken man, no matter how often his captors had tried to break him.  He later ran for Vice President, and the US paid him for his service by largely ignoring and ridiculing him.  But here was his piece of writing, "Master of My Fate".  I knew that there had to be something there worth holding on to.

And so I read it, and it really shook me.  Here was a man who lived in conditions of almost unimaginable horror, taking everything that the worst excesses of a government hellbent on changing the world could throw at him.  Their greatest hope was that he would just go on to the news and tell everyone back home that everything was alright, and that he was being treated well, and that the world should surely turn to Communism and prepare itself for the coming end of history.  To get him to say that they'd shock him every once in a while with a car battery, shove knives under his thumbnails, break his legs, almost anything just to get him to say what they wanted him to say. Through it all he stuck to his beliefs, and he emerged not a broken shell of man, but stronger than he had ever been.  Don't get me wrong, his body was broken, thoroughly broken, but that's just a body.

What had kept him going was the Enchiridion.  The Handbook.  A short little book written down by the students of Epictetus almost two thousand years ago.  He didn't surrender himself or his beliefs, but dug down deep, and with the help of a long-dead man's words he managed to hold on to his own humanity .  He clearly separated what he could control from what he couldn't control, and took it upon himself to only focus on that which he could.  He grasped the second handle, not the first.  

And that's where the title for this blog comes from, from a saying by Epictetus, "Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot." We can grasp in vain for that first handle, and hope that the world sees us as we see ourselves, treats us as we hope to be treated, and gives us what we deserve to be given, or we can worry ourselves only with the things which are really under our control- difficult as that might be.

When I get to this again I'll try to narrow down some of the things that I'll hopefully be discussing here, but in the meantime, what kind of things are you interested in?  What would you like to be able to have a discussion about here? 


  1. Have we ever had a conversation about Admiral Stockdale? I remember how terrible Dennis Miller made me feel about laughing Admiral Stockdale. I can't find video of Miller's rant, but he essentially did a point-by-point explanation of every "flaw" lampooned by Phil Hartman's infamous portrayal of the 1992 Vice Presidential debate on Saturday Night Live.

    I'm paraphrasing, of course, but part of the rant went something like this:

    "Why did he seem so confused? Well, it's because he had trouble hearing the monitor. You see, Admiral Stockdale suffered permanent hearing loss while he was a Prisoner of War for 7 1/2 years during the Vietnam conflict. The hearing loss wasn't from the near-constant physical and mental torture or horrible malnutrition, though. This happened when he BEAT HIMSELF IN THE FACE WITH A STOOL UNTIL HE WAS UNRECOGNIZABLE so that his captors couldn't use him in propaganda. But sure, let's all laugh at the hilarious old guy on TV."

  2. It WAS you who led to the Stockdale chase. Phil Hartman was a funny dude, but he wasn't really doing anyone a service with that one.