On the eve of the 2008 election, the journalist Joe Klein asked Barack Obama how he’d made his decision to respond to the brewing scandal about Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, having made controversial statements about the government and terrorist attacks. Whether you were upset by that situation or not, whether you think he properly addressed it or not, the mindset that Obama explained to Klein is worth spending a few minutes thinking about:
“My gut was telling me that this was a teachable moment and that if I tried to do the usual political damage control instead of talking to the American people like an adult—like they were adults and could understand the complexities of race, that I would not only be doing damage to the campaign but missing an important opportunity for leadership.”
From this, a beautiful and important speech about race relations—known as the “A More Perfect Union” speech—came into existence. A rather ordinary political scandal became a teachable moment.
But that kind of transformation is not solely the domain of politicians or world leaders. It is also our duty and goal as aspiring students of Stoicism—we should all be trying to take the ordinary, frustrating, complex, difficult, and surprising situations that life throws at us and turning them into something.
We should be doing this for ourselves, for our colleagues, for our children, for history. Our goal should be to never miss an important opportunity for leadership—internally or externally. We should always be getting better and stronger for what will happen. That’s what Amor Fati is about. That’s what it means to say that the obstacle is the way and then to take the first steps in that direction.
There is something to teach and something to learn with every moment. There is something to do with every moment. If you’re brave enough, strong enough, committed enough to eschew the path of least resistance—the damage control path—and engage these moments like an adult. Like a human being. Like a Stoic.