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 wrongdoing, 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.
(Via Holliday’s translation of Epictetus, Enchiridion [US] [JP], 43)
I understand the overall moral in Epictetus’ message but the handle metaphor makes no sense. Events don’t have handles. If they do, then why two with one useless handle? Who is making these handles?
The further description from Holliday’s book failed to enrich:
The famous journalist William Seabrook suffered from such debilitating alcoholism that in 1933 he committed himself to an insane asylum, which was then the only place to get treatment for addiction. In his memoir, Asylum, he tells the story of the struggle to turn his life around inside the facility. At first, he stuck to his addict way of thinking—and as a result, he was an outsider, constantly getting in trouble and rebelling against the staff. He made almost no progress and was on the verge of being asked to leave.
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.” It’s an experience shared by many addicts when they finally stop doing things their way and actually open themselves to the perspectives and wisdom and lessons of those who have gone before them.
There is no promise that trying things this way—of grabbing the different handle—will have such momentous results for you. But why continue to lift by the handle that hasn’t worked?
Again, this makes no sense to me. I get the moral – there’s an easy way and a hard way; embracing opportunity instead of fighting to hold on to cherished opinions (paraphrased from a quote of Seng-ts’an I saw somewhere) – but “the handle” still threw me. Off I went to reference another translation to see if this metaphor was poorly conveyed.
I checked out The Enchiridion Translated by Elizabeth Carter, made available by MIT.
Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.
This is, to me, a subtly better version. I still don’t fully appreciate the handle metaphor. It remains awkward. “There are two sides to every coin.” “Every cloud has its silver lining.” Something about swords or cheeks or keepers or better angels or walking in shoes all come close to the idea here.
One more check, this time the copy on Project Gutenberg:
Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite—that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.
These are all variations on a theme. I remain unable to grasp this.
Who is making handles that can’t be used to carry? Is there supposed to be both a “just” and “unjust” handle to all things? If so, how are they distinguished? Can there be a third or more, like “practical but compromised” and “pragmatic but ineffective”?
Taking the constructs of the brother and the addict and bringing them together, I can love him for the fact that he is my brother and we grew up together and I know his better side. But as he is an addict, would I do my brother or myself any good by metaphorically “grabbing the other handle”? If your brother, actual or symbolic, isn’t an addict or similar but you and he are otherwise in conflict, that’s where I think this comes into play.
I think. Maybe. I don’t know.
After all of this I still don’t get Epictetus’ handle metaphor. Would someone care to help illuminate me?
Meanwhile I’m thinking about reaching out to my erstwhile prodigal brother. He’s not an addict or anything. He’s just a dick.