March 17, 2017 – The Beauty of Choice


“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b-40a

Another hiatus from the daily meditations finds me powering through a Tuesday in an effort to get level. Now is a good time to remind those who honor me with their visits that my goal with these blog posts is to share what I consider the timeless wisdom of the Stoics in an effort to approach life in the best way possible. Each day presents us with opportunities to be distracted by external forces, and the Stoics remind us those things are beyond our control. We only have power over how we respond. I am not asking anyone to become a follower of Stoic thinking. In fairness, I’m not sure I can distance myself from some of the emotional attachments I have for people. Example: If a loved one where to pass on I don’t see myself moving forward with “well I only had them on loan from nature”. But we can choose the words of these great Stoics as guides in how not to be consumed by the actions of others or the acquisition of things.

Which leads me to this meditation. Beautiful choices. Oh how deep we could go just discussing what it means to say something is beautiful. Let’s briefly frame how beauty works using relationships. You are at a club/bar and you see an attractive person. You walk up to them and strike up a conversation. While completely taken with the color of their hair, the shape of their face, and their general sexuality of appearance the more they talk the less attractive they become. In spite of the designer clothes and athletic physique, the words coming out of their mouth are like mud on a rose. How does this happen?

We are not what we wear, what we drive, or what we own. These are appearances. Our choices make up the story of who we are. When the clothes go out of style, when the car breaks down, and when our possessions cease to be ours we are only left with person that his behind our name. It is important that we look beyond the appearances of others, and that we are aware of the choices we make that simply feed an appearance.

Isn’t interesting how what is beautiful has changed over history. Simply look at how people are presented in works of art. Beauty has not always been thin, fit people. Or those who look well tanned.

One thing that represents beautiful choices are the friends we choose to surround ourselves with. Consider the words of Confucius.

“Having three kinds of friends will be a source of personal improvement; having three other kinds of friends will be a source of personal injury. One stands to be improved by friends who are true, who make good on their word, and who are broadly informed; one stands to be injured by friends who are ingratiating, who feign compliance, and who are glib talkers.”

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March 16, 2017 – That Sacred Part Of You


“Hold sacred your capacity for understanding. For in it is all, that our ruling principle won’t allow anything to enter that is either inconsistent with nature or with the constitution of a logical creature. It’s what demands due diligence, care for others, and obedience to God.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.9

How does someone overcome while others are consumed? Today’s meditation was saved for when the work day was complete, and it was needed.

The ability to reason is a gift and one we just might take for granted. When things appear to be moving along with amazing fluidity is it so because of external sources or because we leverage our ability to learn, reason, and apply? When we fail at something do we see only that we’ve disappointed ourselves, or others, or are we aware of our power to change our situation?

As the day concluded, a friend shared this with me:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give them orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

There is so much around us, nature and humanity, that are teaching us to yearn for the adventure. We should never lose sight of that. What it takes to be the explorer is our ability to understand what is needed.

Today I needed to read this.

March 15, 2017 – The Present Is All We Possess


“Were you to live three thousand years, or even a countless multiple of that, keep in mind that no one ever loses a life other than the one they are living, and no one ever lives a life other than the one they are losing. The longest and shortest life, then, amount to the same, for the present moment last the same for all and is all anyone can possess. No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.14

Fight Club. Great movie. Full of so many quotable lines. One that fits this meditation:

Tyler Durden: The things you own end up owning you.

There is an obvious perception of the “things” Durden speaks of. It’s the idea that material positions consume us. We come to rely on them. We have to maintain them. For their service, we become their slaves. But let’s look at this from a Stoic perspective. What does it mean to “own” something? What are the things we can possess?

Money allows us to buy things. Laws afford us ownership of those things, or at the very least offer us a degree of insurance that if taken from us we might have some retribution. Maybe we don’t get the thing back, but we do get justice as a form of trade. Through such a purchase we know this: before we bought it the thing was not ours (past), and there is no assurance it will be in our possession any second beyond the moment in which we possess it (future). At best ownership is a temporary experience, and the thing itself is an external that can be a distraction.

Getting lost in regrets, and being disappointed with a life not lived serves no purpose. What then do we do with the past and how should we approach the future? Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard may help us with this question. The past is a way of understanding who we are. It should be nothing more. The future is a destination within which future moments will be lived.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Marcus is reminding us that what has passed us by has been lost.  Let the future be unknown. We no longer possess those moments already lived. We cannot change the past. In turn, there is nothing in the future that is ours beyond speculation of who we will become. If the future life doesn’t come to be we have lost nothing. The moment is our life. It is our very self. We must be aware of how important the moment is. We must treasure it.

March 14, 2017 – Self-Deception Is Our Enemy


“Zeno would say that nothing is more hostile to a firm grasp on knowledge than self-deception.” – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.23

Sometimes ego gets in the way. Have you ever been in a meeting, participating in an activity, or creating something and you wanted to be respected for the knowledge you bring to the situation? In doing so, was the outcome such that you ended up more focused on how you were being perceived instead of what you could be learning from what others brought? A few seasons ago, when I started playing organized soccer again, I allowed myself to feel the pressure of performance. I didn’t want to disappoint my teammates so I pushed myself physically and I tried to motivate vocally. The outcome: I ended up injuring myself multiple times, and I came across as a bit of an ass. Once I gathered myself, accepted the fact that my body was not in shape for the sport, and that I could not appreciate the dynamics of the team and the league, I became a student to those who had been playing together for years.

In 3.26 “To those who are afraid of want”, Epictetus writes:

[13] Live in such a way and never cease to do so; you’ve embarked on philosophy in name alone, you who have discredited its principles, so far as you are able, by showing them to be useless and unprofitable for those who adopt them! Never have you desired firmness of mind, serenity, impassibility; never have you attended any teacher with that purpose in mind, but many a teacher to learn about syllogisms. Never have you tested out any of these impressions for yourself, asking yourself, [14] ‘Am I capable of bearing this or not? What remains for me to do?’, but as if all were safe and sound for you, you’ve concentrated on the area of study which should come last, that which is concerned with immutability, so that you may be unchanging— in what? In your cowardice, your meanness of spirit, your admiration for the rich, your inability to achieve what you desire, your inability to avoid falling into what you want to avoid. These are the things that you’ve been so anxious to secure!

Gaining knowledge affords the capability of changing. If we are not learning, we are static. If we are not learning about ourselves, we are self-defeating. We must be aware we do not, and cannot, know everything. As we discussed in February, being silent is often the best choice. Take the opportunity to learn from others so that in turn we can learn about ourselves. We need to know what we cannot bear.

 

March 13, 2017 – One Day It Will All Make Sense


“Whenever you find yourself blaming providence, turn it around in your mind and you will see what has happened is in keeping with reason.” – Epictetus, Discourse, 3.17.1

This semester I’m taking a class on role ethics. Last Tuesday we were asked for paper topics, more specifically if we had a thesis and brief summary. After sharing what I had my  professor was constructively critical. He asked that a look more for an argument, and present the material less like a blog post. Initially I was taken aback. Blogs can be valuable sources of information, or, like what I’m attempting to do here, can offer insight into a mode of thinking about being human.

He was correct in his assessment. There is a distinct difference between making an argument and offering an opinion. An argument discloses the complexity of a position. It takes into account both the argument and counter argument. The argument forces us to use reason to appreciate what we can understand, but also what is unknown.

Today’s meditation focuses on how we can be myopic about the complexity of the world. What happens when we don’t get our way? Do we react with anger, or frustration? It’s easy to get caught in the idea that there is but one way to reach a goal. If there is any deviation, if it requires more time than expected, then we feel slighted.

This is an illusion. What do we know of the future that presumes a greater benefit from the plan we laid out? How sure are we that what we think we want is best for us? What if our loss is a more important gain for someone else? It is much easier to look back on what has happened, and through reason make sense of the circumstances. Knowing this why would we allow ourselves to be overcome when things don’t go our way?

Lastly, Epictetus would ask that we consider more important the interior of the person, what guides them, rather than focus on results.

[2] ‘Yes, but someone who is unjust comes off better.’ In what? In money. For in that regard he has the better of you because he flatters people, because he has no shame, because he stays awake at night. Is there anything surprising in that? [3] But look to see whether he is better than you in being trustworthy and honest. Because you’ll find that not to be the case; but rather, in those things in which you’re superior to him, you’ll find that you’re the one who is better off.

Life has many moving parts, and we are but one of them.

 

March 12, 2017 – Seeing Things As the Person at Fault Does


“Whenever someone has done wrong by you, immediately consider what notion of good or evil they had in doing it. For when you see that, you’ll feel compassion, instead of astonishment or rage. For you may yourself have the same notions of good and evil, or similar ones, in which case you’ll make allowance for what they’ve done. But if you no longer hold the same notions, you’ll be more readily gracious for their error.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.26

I want to share the questions that close this meditation.

How much more tolerant and understanding would you be today if you could see the actions of other people as attempts to do the right thing? Whether you agree or not, how radically would this lens change your perspective on otherwise offensive or belligerent actions?

In Roger T. Ames’ book Confucian Role Ethics, A Vocabulary, he presents the question (p 163) of how a son should cover for his father, and a father for his son. The heart of the question lies in role ethics and justice. Let’s assume a father steals something and his son witnesses it. The son could go to the authorities and have his father arrested, or he could confront his father and allow him to make good on this act which soils the father’s virtue. Which is the appropriate thing to do? From a Confucian role ethics perspective, the community is better served through retribution done so that relationships are not severed. I read this as a distinction between State law as coercive, the laws which we truly choose to live by.

What if our first thought wasn’t to seek vengeance or justice against those who have harmed us? Obviously, there are measures of extremes and at times such extremes might find us less willing to understand the “why”. But we can take this quote to be more in line with someone who thinks what they’re doing is right, and that right thing is in conflict with our right thing. It’s not giving into a passion because we feel slighted. Not assuming we are the direct target of the act or words.

It boils down to us being aware that others have reasons for the things they do. If we have such an awareness, we may find that we value the relationship above all else because we seek to observe from an others eyes. Isn’t this also a type of freedom?

March 11, 2017 – Living Without Restriction


“The unrestricted person, who has in hand what they will in all events, is free. But anyone who can be restricted, coerced, or pushed into something against what they will is a slave.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.128b-129a

I’m going to dig into my bag of bands, again. This time we’re touching down in the 80’s. The band is The Bolshoi, and the song is “Someone’s Daughter” from their album “Friends”.

I wish I knew the secret of success
Then I could laugh about it, I could say I couldn’t care less
I don’t want to wait for the dinner plate (No Way)
Is there any hope for the record plate (Today)
I don’t see no sign, I don’t see no sign
I just got to get out there and find the thing and make it mine

Oh, here it comes again that old feeling
I’ve had since I don’t know when, don’t ask me to explain, no
I’m no different, I’m the same, yes
There was once a time when I knew how to (Do Things)
I just don’t care, very debonair (No Strings)
I’ve had lesson one, I’ve had lesson one
If you get half of what you want out of this life, you’re lucky son

So much to be unpacked. First, if we’re looking for signs to tell us what to do, we’re living under restrictions. Second, if we’re waiting for permission to launch ourselves into the hands of fate, we’re living under restrictions. Lastly, do we really want to be in a position where we feel lucky to get half of what we want out of this life?

In 4.1 Epictetus uses the example of being a Senator, while still being a slave. He asks:

[17] Were you never ordered by your beloved to do something that you didn’t want to do? Have you never flattered your little slave? Have you never kissed his feet? And yet, if you were compelled to kiss Caesar’s feet, you’d regard that as an outrage and the height of tyranny. Is slavery anything other than that, then?

The key here is to understand what it means to do something you don’t want to do. In the time of Epictetus, slaves performed many tasks that allowed freemen higher pursuits. Some slaves were treated well, so well that they were allowed to keep some of the money made from labor. Others were treated like a piece of property. The very idea of kissing a slave’s feet implies an act of freedom, where kissing Caesar’s is more of a demand. There is a significant difference in doing something for someone you love as an order, and doing it because you want to make them happy even if you would rather be elsewhere.

What burden does restriction put upon us? How should we oppose it? He defines the want of freedom in very extreme terms.

[29] That is why we call free only those animals that won’t put up with captivity, but escape through death as soon as they’re captured.

It’s an important question to ask: how am I living? Am I aware of what I’m giving up for the nice car, house, and other material trappings? Am I forced to march to the orders of someone in charge, or am I being led by someone who appreciates my voice? Who respects me?

When we value freedom above things our world, and live, surely has greater meaning.