Stoic Serenity 2.6: Acting with Reservation Exercise

Assignment time! I know we’ve been trudging through this second chapter, but the end is in sight, I promise! Consider this as an exercise in self-restraint and dedication. You’re improving your character. 🙂

  • Identify three incidents (whether they happened long ago or are recent events) in which your aim to have something happen was thwarted and which you think serve as good examples of how you can get upset about things.
  • Briefly write exactly what happened and how you felt.
  • For each situation, imagine that a Stoic is advising you to act “with reservation.” Write down their specific advice to you.
  • Do you think you would have coped better in the situation if you had had this conversation?

  • Identify three activities you have planned for the next week or two.
  • For each activity, write what it will mean to engage in that activity “with reservation.”
  • After these activities have occurred, write down whether they went well or poorly.
  • Were you successful at acting “with reservation”?
  • Do you perceive any possible (personal, mental, character) benefits from making the attempt at the project?


Alright y’all. My example is about to get real personal since I can think of two major events right off the top of my head:

  • I interviewed for a job that I was extremely qualified for. The interview went great. I intended to get the job.

Thwarted: The interviewing supervisor personally knew my previous supervisor (who was hell-bent on ruining my life and reputation for whatever reason) and called her to ask why I was applying and to discuss me as a candidate. She fed him lies, he believed her. Plan thus thwarted.

How I Felt: I felt trapped. I couldn’t escape from my previous boss, even though I didn’t work there anymore! I felt wronged and extremely discouraged. If I can’t even get a job that I’m more than qualified for, how can I possibly ever get any other job? It went from a personal anger against my previous boss, to being angry with the interviewing supervisor for being gullible enough to believe the terrible lady, to me deciding that no one must think I’m worth employing—that I have no skills to contribute and am therefore of no value to society.

Stoic Advice: More than the general way of embarking on your aim: “I will get this new job unless something prevents it,”  you could have also prepared yourself in the area you suspected would go wrong: “I will get this new job unless my previous boss is successful in her attempts to prevent me from being hired.” It can be hard on the human soul to go through so much injustice and discouragement. But the truth is, the earth is full of people who find pleasure in making life more difficult for others. The earth is full of things that don’t go our way, and we just can’t do anything about it. So you would be wise to equally prepare your mind for this battle by embarking on every intent to get a new job by saying, “I will get this new job unless something prevents it; unless the supervisor does not find me qualified; unless my interview skills fail me,” etc. You can only do what you have power over: intend to interview well, intend to get the job, always be honest, always uphold your dignity. But the irrationality of others is beyond your own control.

Would this have helped?: Maybe. Probably. Instead of feeling like a victim, I identify that the others were just plain irrational: previous boss invented lies for whatever reason and the interviewing supervisor believed them for whatever reason. Can I control what happened? No. I already interviewed great. I tried my best to get the job. It didn’t happen. God didn’t have that in store for me, apparently. I can take a little tiny comfort in considering how irrational the other supervisors were, because assuming that I’m a rational person, it makes me feel like I’m the “bigger person.” I have my own character and reasoning capacities to be proud of. That’s all I need in the end.

Ok, I know that’s only one event but that’s more than enough. Haha. Sorry for exploding with my personal story, but let me tell you the lesson to be learned:

After this incident (plus another) coincided with each other, it was too much for me at the time. I was overwhelmed. I became extremely depressed. I vomited daily before going to work. Then when I completed my term of employment, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t wake up, I couldn’t physically get out of bed. This went on for three months. Luckily God has blessed me with an amazing family that came and collected me and took me home for three months. I managed to reach a functioning level where I would eat and go to work at a job I felt no satisfaction from. But then I would come home, figure that nothing was meaningful and the future was pointless, and so I would crawl into my bed at 6:00 and just go to sleep. The next morning, I’d do it all again.

The point is that I allowed myself to be completely controlled by externals.

I forgot about power over my opinion, intent, desire, aversion. Those simply fluttered in the winds of whatever storm fell upon me. And the result is that I felt like absolute crap and lost six months of my life in this depression. The human soul is invincible, yet mine simply gave up anyway. How sad. Instead of throwing myself under the control of my passions, I would have been much better off following some guiding principle. I would have been much better off at every single step along the way if I had just understood the truth that my soul is invincible and that I simply need to act “with reservation.”

Now the second part of the assignment—the part that is future-focused.

  • This week, I intend to secure a job interview.

How to Engage “With Reservation”: I will follow up on my applications unless something prevents me. I will schedule a job interview unless something prevents it. —(The agencies might not answer their phones or respond to messages/emails. They might ignore me. My application might not have provoked enough interest to warrant an interview for the position).

I will apply for “smaller jobs” unless something prevents it.—(The internet might not work again. My car battery might die and prevent me from driving to places to look for jobs. All the positions simply might fill up and there will be no more openings for me to apply to.)

In short, I will intend to secure a job interview this week with no expectation to succeed.

  • This week, I intend to sign up for a formal Spanish class.

How to Engage “With Reservation”: I will email the agency director unless something prevents it.—(The internet might fail, of course.) They simply may not offer another Spanish class. They might only offer a beginner class, which would be simply wasteful for me. The class might be too expensive. I might have to spend my money on some other unexpected event.

In short, I will intend to sign up for a formal Spanish class, although I have no expectation that I will succeed.

  • This week, I intend to save at least half of the money I’ve budgeted for groceries.

How to Engage “With Reservation”: I will refrain from going to the grocery store unless something prevents it.—I might have company over, which is superiorly beneficial than saving grocery money would be. All my food might suddenly spoil. An unexpected event might arise which requires me to purchase special items or ingredients. The price of eggs could jump to $6/dozen.

In short, I intend to save at least half of my grocery money with no expectation that I’ll succeed.

Do you see the difference between what you intend to do and what you expect will happen? To complete the exercise, come back to your own three future-focused events after they have occurred and evaluate how well they actually went. Evaluate if you were successful or not at acting “with reservation.” (Hint: were you mentally/emotionally disturbed by the thwarting of your plans? Did you lose your tranquility of mind?) And finally, remembering Marcus Aurelius’ advice that when we face hindrances, we must seek out a virtue to act upon, ask yourself: Did the failure of any of my plans actually produce internal benefits? Did I allow myself to be conquered or did I conquer the failure and use it to further myself in my ultimate goal: developing my Virtue?

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