My wife gets upset when I use this term, generally as my response to a bad situation (like when she got Covid from me and couldn’t go on a long-planned retreat with two colleagues). As a hard-working, high-achieving New Englander, she defaults at trying harder and doing whatever it takes to make any difficulty better. Often, she succeeds. In this situation where she didn’t, what she needed from me was some empathy, not stoic philosophy. And she may also be right that I give up in such circumstances too soon, at least some of the time. But as a long-time member of the Al-Anon 12-Step recovery program as well as a writer of books (and blogs) on wisdom, I tend to think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’m sure I write about wisdom in part because I am on a life-long quest to cultivate ever more of it in myself so that I can know the difference...
The world’s cultures have expressions that parallel mine. A French one many English-speakers know is C’est la vie!” Our near equivalent is “That’s life!” My late Indonesian guru, for his part, would often say in his language Demikianlah, saudara! or “That’s just how it is, brothers and sisters!” And although my Japanese is sukoshi, or little to a fault, my 17 years of living in Hawai`i, where Japanese Americans form the largest single group in the population, acquainted me with the expression shikata ga nai, generally said with a shrug of the shoulders and meaning something like “It can’t be helped” or “Nothing can be done about it.”
For my part, I find this sort of acceptance helpful, maybe even as a kind of reverse psychology. In my recent bout with Covid, for example, I started out with the strong intention to fight the virus till it left. After about a week, however, I had an inner dialogue with it in which I welcomed the visitors to my body and invited them to enjoy using me as a kind of microscopic Airbnb for as long as it suited them and then to leave when the time was right. “They” thanked me and told me to “have a nice day!” Go figure! Yet from that moment of acceptance and surrender on, I felt myself starting to feel better, although the rapid test still showed the unwished-for two lines. By day 12, however, both my wife and I tested negative. (Interestingly, medical tests are the one area where a negative is positive and a positive is negative.) People of course differ. I respect my wife as someone who fights bad things to the end, whereas I sometimes end things before I fight. Also, genders may differ. In any case, I need to learn to offer her empathy when it is called for and save the stoicism for myself.