March 23, 2017 – The Straightjacketed Soul


“The diseases of the rational soul are long-standing and hardened vices, such as greed and ambition – they have put the soul in a straightjacket and have begun to be permanent evils inside it. To put it briefly, this sickness is an unrelenting distortion of judgement, so things that are only mildly desirable are vigorously sought after,” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 75.11

On some Sunday mornings, I’ll move through the channels on television looking for church broadcasts. I’m always interested to see what the pastors are telling their congregations. Are they spreading messages of hope? Are they asking the attendees, both present and distant, to focus on their thoughts on the good? Is there something I, a non-theist, can latch onto?

I’m also looking for seeds of prosperity theology. This is a faith position that part of God’s promise to his people will be financial well-being. If one supports Christian institutions they will receive financial rewards. Buy Christian music. Support Christian businesses. Give to Christian causes. Russell Herman Conwell’s speech “Acres of Diamonds” is seen as an example of such thought.

Conwell was many things during his life, including an American Baptist minister, lawyer, and writer. You may know him as the founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. In the speech, he wrote: (source)

I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich … The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. Let me say here clearly … ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them. It is because they are honest men. … I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins … is to do wrong. … Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own short comings..

The bolding is mine. It is a frightening standard through which we measure other people if that standard is their financial wealth. How, additionally, might we perceive opportunity if we understand opportunity as something to be afforded to us by a god with whom we are found to be favored? Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with having money. As with Conwell, the money from this speech afforded him the opportunity to create a fine university, and after his death, the proceeds were donated to a local homeless shelter.

There is an “ends justifying the means” question at play. Is it worth the rewards that one perpetuates the idea of the poor being sinful, and they we are obligated to be rich? And to be fair this is seen in non-religious circles as well. We need only look to Wall Street for that, where folks are willing to gamble with the lives of others for their own financial success.

We must allow our rational mind to see beyond the poor judgment brought about by greed and ambition. We must be aware of how are decisions are pulling us further from being that good parent, friend, and neighbor.

36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Mark 8:36

March 20, 2017 – Ready and At Home


“I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor. Wouldn’t I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I’ll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war. Neither am I so crazy as to desire illness, but if I must suffer illness, I’ll wish to do nothing rash or dishonorable. The point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue that makes adversities bearable.” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 67.4

We’ve discussed how Stoic thought, specifically Epictetus, tells us how we should approach death and illness.

24. If someone dies young, he finds fault with the gods [because he is having to leave the world before his time, but if he remains alive when old, he finds fault with them too] because he is continuing to live when it was high time that he was at rest; but all the same, when death approaches, he wants to stay alive, and sends for the doctor, telling him to spare no trouble or effort. How extraordinary people are, he said, to be unwilling either to live or to die. Discourses, Fragments

[14] ‘And illness, what will you make of that?’ I’ll show its nature, I’ll excel in it, I’ll remain steadfast and serene, I won’t flatter my doctor, I won’t pray for death. [15] What more do you seek? Whatever you present to me I’ll turn it into something blessed and a source of happiness, into something venerable and enviable. Discourses, 3.20

The question posed is how we approach the inevitable. We will get sick at some time. Eventually, we will die.

Misty Diaz is an “adaptive athlete”. An adaptive athlete is anyone who must adapt to circumstances in order to compete. Some consider all of us “adaptive” in some way, but the central focus is on those with disabilities. Misty, as an example, was born with Spina Bifida but decided at a young age to not be defined by her physical limitations. No doubt she wishes she had an easier road to life, but she embraced her circumstances, suffering her disease with admirable character. (source)

For me, my mental state is so important. I’ve had more than 28 operations since birth and have even woken up in the intensive care unit not being able to speak. The only thing keeping me alive was the fact that I was mentally talking to myself about how I could overcome this and how I wouldn’t fail.

Don’t view your adaptive disability as a limitation. Use it as a training tool to help you become stronger and faster. Being an adaptive athlete, I’ve encountered many obstacles that have made me more resilient.

Misty’s situation is different. She was given a circumstance at birth, but she has progressively prepared herself for future opportunities. It’s no different for those who live without such conditions. How will we approach the inevitables of life? Misty’s example, of seeing such challenges as training tools sets the bar. Her awareness of what these situations bring, opportunities to be a better person, encompasses the virtues Stoicism teaches us.

Such virtues make life “bearable” for us, but it also allows us to be examples for others. Like Misty.

 

March 10, 2017 – Find Yourself a Cato


“We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable. Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts!” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 11.9

Happy is the person who can improve others. It’s as if this meditation knew how I would end my observations on the previous meditation. A broken clock being what it is…

Accountability groups. I first heard this term at a men’s event at a church. The suggestion was for the men, after the event was over, to make time to meet at least once a month. At these meetings, they could share with the group whatever challenges, or successes, that came their way. It would create not only closeness but also would develop a sense of trust.

Cato is used as the title of this meditation because he was considered a bold and brave individual. He stood up to Julius Ceasar, was known for not taking bribes, and was generally incorruptible. Seneca is reminding us that we all need a Cato. Someone we trust to hold us accountable. Someone we would not want to disappoint even when they are not present.

We may find that in doing so we become Cato’s for others.

March 5, 2017 – Cutting Back on the Costly


“So, concerning the things we pursue, and for which we vigorously exert ourselves, we owe this consideration  either there is nothing useful in them, or most aren’t useful. Some of them are superfluous, while others aren’t worth that much. But we don’t discern this and see them as free, when they cost us dearly.” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 42.6

It seems that Thoreau’s quote

The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.

fits perfectly. How often can I write/say that and it be true? In meditating on this quote I focused on three elements: pursuit, exertion, and cost.

Pursuit

We are inundated every day by people telling us we need things. Television. Billboards. Radio. Internet. Pursuing something, in and of itself, is not bad. Rather, it’s when the pursuit it for things that “aren’t worth much” that we find ourselves distanced from the things that do. How do we get back?

Exertion

Energy is a valuable, but limited resource. For humans, energy can be understood to consist of three important pieces: food, water, and sleep. But this for the body. The mind too consumes energy. Thinking is not free, and being able to think clearly assumes we’ve done well on the food, water, sleep front. When our pursuits take us away from the good we must exert even more effort to get back to the trailhead.

Cost

We pay for every mistake we make. Either with actual money or with time. It is critical that we are aware of what we are paying for.

Years ago my son shared with me that, in retrospect, he felt we wasted so much money on toys that received limited use. I can’t speak to whether the frequency of use is a good measurement for the value of something like a toy. Maybe it inspired him to like something else, and without it his life would have been different. A bit dramatic but I hope you see my point. That we were able to afford things is the benefit of my wife and I have good jobs. Her job, when my son was younger, required her to work weekends. This meant she missed a good number of his Saturday football games. We were both aware of the consequences of this choice and accepted it.

No decision, financial or time specific, will yield a perfect consequence. But when we measure the cost against return of investment, when we are truly aware of what we’re willing to pay, we can ensure we are cutting out the costly elsewhere. Those things that cost us but from which we yield little to nothing of value.