It has become fashionable for people to say that “the definition of insanity is continuing to do things the same way while expecting a different result”. I first heard this many years ago, but I have noticed the frequency of its use has risen considerably.
The challenge for many of us isn’t to recognize the wisdom of that adage – apart from the fact that it isn’t really the “definition” of insanity – but to take the next step, to act. To demonstrate this is not a new problem, I give you this observation from the ancient Stoic philosopher, Epictetus:
“Every event has two handles – one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other – that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries”
In his writings about Stoicism, Ryan Holiday relates a story about the journalist William Seabrook who, suffering from alcoholism in the 1930’s checked himself into an “insane asylum” (such were the times). In his memoir, Seabrook wrote about his initial failures to confront his disease by rebelling against the staff. He was on the verge of being asked to leave. Holiday writes:
“Then one day this very quote from Epictetus – about everything having two handles – occurred to him. ‘I took hold now by the other handle,” he related later, ‘and carried on.’ He actually began to have a good time there. He focused on his recovery with real enthusiasm. “I suddenly found it wonderful, strange, and beautiful, to be sober…It was as if a veil, or scum, or film had been stripped from all things visual and auditory.’ “
Many of us are wrestling with problems much less sinister than addiction. If recognizing the second handle can make such an impact on one man’s struggle to save his life, perhaps it can hold some value for us and our more mundane problems as well?
However it’s the “recognizing” the second handle that’s the hard part. I can’t imagine being able to see a second handle without finding a moment of quiet so you can think.
Warning: since finding a second handle means admitting to yourself that “the first thing I tried didn’t work”, when you sit down to think, check your ego at the door.