A mere “oops” and a playful laugh is not what you might expect when damaging a brand new vehicle, but that’s just how Dave is—as long as I’ve known him, he has never wished for a fig in winter.
We had spent a quiet afternoon paddling through the bay near his home, but as we loaded the kayaks back into his brand new truck (a truck he only had for less than a week) Dave pushed with such enthusiasm that it hit the back window with a shattering force.
Dave’s response is reminiscent of the words of the philosopher Epictetus: “What you love has been given to you for the present, as a fig is given to you at the appointed season. But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool.”
One of the traits I most appreciate about Dave is his ability to accept the current season, a reminder that a common cause of suffering is desire (wanting what we can’t have or what isn’t real) and that the remedy for such suffering is to simply let go.
These Noble Truths are reflected in the Serenity Prayer: “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.”
Fostering the ability to distinguish between what can and cannot be controlled, and wasting no time worrying about the latter, is a rather lofty goal—but it is certainly a worthy one.
My own journey to let go of the desire for “figs in winter” has been a tumultuous one—including the death of my fiancée in 2007 just days after returning from a romantic Labor Day weekend vacation, and the divorce from my wife and death of my father in 2014. These experiences are a reminder that one way or another, sooner or later, all things end—reflecting the stoic practice of preparing for the end through premeditatio malorum:
“With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.”
The use of the phrase “you will not be disturbed” can be misleading here, for how could anyone possibly lack emotion when a loved one dies? Perhaps this phrase is best interpreted not so much as a lack of disturbance, but rather as an experience put into perspective:
When something is taken away (when a loved one does, when a sentimental object breaks, or when a kayak smashes the window of a brand new truck) it would be foolish to suffer endlessly, for it merely means one season has ended and another has begun—as a fig in winter.
The Curious Paradox
The psychologist Carl Rogers highlights a fascinating tension between the desire for change and acceptance for the way things are: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself, just as I am, then I can change.”
In other words, it is only by accepting the reality of our circumstances that we become empowered to make positive changes for our growth and development—because we’re grounded in what is real rather than mere wishful thinking.
In improvisational comedy, this is known as “Yes, and…,” a practice that calls us to start from a place of agreement and then build off that agreement with an expanded idea to create something new. In improv, this technique keeps a scene moving forward; in business, this helps teams maintain open communication; and in our own personal lives, this curious paradox can help to heal old wounds and accept new joys that await just around the river bend.
It can be difficult to accept when a sentimental object is lost, a new vehicle is damaged, or when a loved one dies, but to heal the suffering of wanting what we cannot have, it can be useful to remember the curious paradox; that it is only through acceptance that we can ever hope to move forward.
After all, winter is coming, and figs will soon be out of season.
Have you ever wished for a fig in winter? What might you do to let go of false beliefs and desires?
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Jonas Cain is an educator, facilitator, and coach, working to engage, empower, and encourage leaders and the people they serve to experience joy.