“Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadiness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom. For what would you sell these things?” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.3.6b-8
Acadia National Park is one of the great protected natural resources America has to offer. One of its draws is a 1.6-mile hike along the famous Precipice Trail. With narrow ledges, and many iron rungs and handholds, this 850 ft ascent is more about mental confidence than physical endurance. When I was in Acadia a few years ago the trail was closed due to the nesting of the Peregrine Falcons in the area, but it was a trail that was recommended to my friend and me.
Today I watched four YouTube videos of hikers that made the trek. Having already experienced Katahdin’s Knife Edge I was surprised that while watching the videos my hands began to sweat. Those on the video could assure me the rungs are stable, but when that camera looks down and we get to see the straight drop below the fear of falling was well translated. There is no future I can see where I would ever hike that trail. As much as I love to hike, why would I subject myself to such fear? I can experience views above tree line from much more stable locations.
Where do we spend our time? Work, sporting events, church, athletic teams or other social settings occupy our lives by choice. We are not bound by some natural, or man-made law, to social institutions, yet how often will we remain somewhere that serves to wear us down?
In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis wrote:
“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
Epictetus is reminding us that our very character is something we must protect. The meditation is asking us to consider those environments that we allow ourselves to be in, and whether they are more provoking us rather than inspiring us. Are we constantly on that emotional edge, and in doing so is it distracting you from the life you want, and the person you want to be? Sometimes the hard decision is to change jobs, move to a different location, admit a friendship is pernicious or adjust to a different social group, but isn’t that a small price for the freedom Epictetus speaks of?