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.

March 2, 2017 -Accurate Self-Assessment


“Above all, it is necessary for a person to have a true self-estimate, for we commonly think we can do more than we really can.” – Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 5.2

Two excellent quotes from Goethe from today’s meditation.

As Goethe’s maxim goes, it is a great failing “to see yourself as more than you are.”

Couple that with:

He states that it is equally damaging to “value yourself at less than your true worth.”

So how do we measure self-worth? What is our method of determining the means of assessing our self? Consider how we value the worth of men and women. Strength versus beauty. Tenacity versed reserved behavior. If the assessment is coming from external sources, distracting sources, we may find ourselves never measuring up because the external is always a moving target. How can we appease the institutions or the myriad of people with differing ideas of what worth is?

Seneca is asking us to have a true self-estimate. What do you see when you look inside and are you being honest in that assessment? What events can you pull from past experience that remind you times when you achieved more than you imagined, or when you failed harder than you expected?

The key to all of this is our willingness to perform the assessment. Admitting when we’re wrong is no less valuable than knowing when we’re correct. Being aware of our abilities and limitations will allow us to know what needs to be improved and how we’ve cultivated abilities to succeed.

Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote:

“We must all obey the great law of change. it is the most powerful law of nature.”

Embrace the challenge of being human. Every day is an opportunity to accurately judge ourselves. See how we’ve changed.

February 11, 2017 – Hero or Nero?


“Our soul is sometimes a king, and sometimes a tyrant. A king, by attending to what is honorable, protects the good health of the body in its care, and gives it no base or sordid command. But an uncontrolled, desire-fueled, over-indulged soul is turned from a king into that most feared and detested thing – a tyrant.” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 114.24

My physical body continues to demand more than my mind is capable of delivering. Today was the 5th Annual City Wide Citrus Harvest in Jacksonville, FL. This even consists of the Society of St. Andrew and Feeding Northeast Florida visiting homes throughout the city in an effort to salvage citrus that would otherwise go unpicked. I was a site coordinator for the 4th time (we have a total of five sites) in the five years of the event’s existence. My bout with bronchitis, showing progress towards victory but still far from over, saw me in a condition that left me disappointed in how I managed the volunteers. Six homes went untouched. But thanks to my wife, and the basic goodness of those who volunteered, we still managed to glean an estimated 26,000 lbs of citrus. The actual figure will be released in the coming weeks.

What does this have to do with Seneca’s quote about the difference between a king and a tyrant?

I needed to be a site by 7:15 am to begin setting up my table, chairs, forms to be filled out, tools for picking and the necessary act of greeting volunteers. I was operating on maybe 3 hours of sleep. I was coughing. My body was aching. I haven’t had an appetite in days so my blood sugar was far too low for the activity required over the next 4 hours.

There were around 100 people looking up at me when, at 8:15 am, I began to explain what this effort entails. That what we pick will feed people across seven counties. That every year the volunteer count goes up, the weight in citrus picked goes up and we inevitably pick up more houses for next year’s event. There are families, church groups, business and single individuals who participate, and it is my job to take all the data supplied to me and create temporary communities of people. These communities will drive to homes and pick fruit. At my site we had 54 homes to visit before the end of the day, designated as noon.

This morning I had to look beyond my own malaise and represent the charitable organizations who entrusted me to be their spokesperson. The volunteers didn’t want to see some guy complaining about not feeling well. Telling them that he’s sorry it wasn’t be run better, but he’s doing the best he can. I needed their help. I needed to be a good leader. This wasn’t about me, or how I felt.

Hero or Nero are extremes. We need simply be good for the sake of things other than ourselves. Be a thoughtful friend, co-worker, spouse, student, consumer or neighbor. Are we edifying our community? Is our focus on justice and fairness, or are we simply looking to get what we want? Are we demanding things from others that, if thrust upon us, we’d recoil?

We should seek the best from ourselves, and others. We should work to be the leader we look for in others.

February 10, 2017 – Anger is a Bad Fuel


“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on it’s own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insance – since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.” – Seneca, On Anger, 3.1.5

Some people think as Johnny “Rotten” Lydon sang, “anger is an energy”. It can be used to motivate us to greatness. It can inspire us to improve our condition or the condition of others. I admit I can be one of those people. This assumes there is no possible way to achieve the same outcome without anger. When Seneca claims “it turns its teeth on itself” he’s telling us that this fuel does not burn without damaging the very system within which it runs.

“Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” –MLK, Jr, Strength to Love

As a bad fuel, anger damages the vessel that holds it.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – Buddha

An article from the “Better Health” website details the physical damage of anger.

  • headache
  • digestion problems, such as abdominal pain
  • insomnia
  • increased anxiety
  • depression
  • high blood pressure
  • skin problems, such as eczema
  • heart attack
  • stroke

Anger will eventually burn itself out. What embers are left? What damage has been done that must be repaired? Does being angry foster love, or hatred? The book uses a great example of how being called fat might motivate someone to lose weight. But at what cost? How does the person who lost the weight feel about those who used the unkind words?

Be ever aware of what is fueling you.