In 1811, a 68-year-old Thomas Jefferson sat down to try to put down some advice that he could pass along to his 12-year-old granddaughter Cornelia. His advice survives to us as “Canons of Conduct,” 12 rules for living.
Did Jefferson always live up to these rules? No, certainly not. For instance, he often spent money before he had it. He was prideful. And of course, as a slave owner, he quite hypocritically violated his rule to “never trouble another with what you can do yourself.” But still, the rules are all easy to understand and hard to disagree with…except one.
Rule #10 is “Take things always by their smooth handle.” What does that even mean?
It’s actually a sly reference to a passage from Epictetus, one that we talked about a while back. “Every event has two handles,” Epictetus said, “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 wronging, 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.”
That’s what Jefferson was getting at when he made it one of his rules of life. It’s something we should teach our kids. In every situation, there’s the rough and weak handle, and there’s the smooth and sturdy handle. They can find the good or the bad in people. They can blame the person who wronged them or they can think of when they committed a similar wrong. They can see difficulty as a reason to turn back or as an opportunity to prove themselves.
Help them come to see that there’s always two handles. And that the smoothest and sturdiest handle is the better one to grab, now and always.