Examining Epictetus #34: Silence: Your General Rule

Every word was another spade of dirt. As the speaker continued, the hole he dug for himself got bigger. He should have stopped long ago, but his foolishness got the better of him. He was another prime example of the proverb, “A fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul (Proverbs 18:7).”

How many times have I been the speaker? How many times have you? There are some days when shutting up seems impossible. The words flow in all directions. Some of them cut, some bring shame, and most of it ends up being nonsense. And when the words come with nary a thought, the danger is at its highest level. Wisdom flees the speaker as the foolishness takes command.

Let silence be your general rule; say only what is necessary and in few words. -Epictetus

There is a memorable scene at the end of the movie Gone in 60 Seconds. The Sphinx, a character played by Vinnie Jones, goes through the whole movie without saying one line. But then at the end, he waxes poetic and lays down a wonderful set of lines.* The other characters are amazed, and some didn’t even know he could speak at all. Would his eloquence have carried the same weight if he spoke throughout the movie?

And in the real world, the rule holds true. When the ones that are generally quiet speak up, others listen. Maybe the listeners pause from the shock, but they do stop and listen.

Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive. -Proverbs 17:28

In writing, an over-abundance of words doesn’t always hit the mark. Instead, it often adds confusion and costs the reader more time. Similarly,  a speaker who can drive home the message with less words will have a greater impact. If we can guard our tongues, and as Epictetus said, “Say only what is necessary and in few words,” our message will carry greater weight.

“If his unpleasant wounding has in some way enlightened the rest of you as to the grim finish beneath the glossy veneer of criminal life and inspired you to change your ways, then his injuries carry with it an inherent nobility, and a supreme glory. We should all be so fortunate. You say poor Toby? I say poor us. -The Sphinx, Gone in 60 Seconds


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No Limits, Only Plateaus

Limits

I can’t.

It is those words that draw the line in the sand. They put up the barriers between success and never really getting started in the first place, which is worse than failure. To say, “you can’t,” is not getting beat, it is only admitting defeat.

Can’t is a self-imposed limit. It is a red light on an empty street. A full stop. And sometimes when you get one red light, you find a multitude of them waiting around the corner.

The Spread

The obstacles in life are only that. They are only obstacles. And when one enters the picture, we are confronted with a choice. We can either attempt to conquer them, or we can stay where we are.

Some said it was impossible to:

  • Run a four-minute mile
  • Deadlift a thousand pounds
  • Travel faster than a horse
  • Fly like a bird
  • Go to the moon

They were wrong.

Hit one red light, you might hit them all. Say you can’t in one area of your life, you might find you can’t in the all the other areas. “A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark,” said Dante. One little “can’t” has the potential to burn all your hopes and dreams down.

No limits

Are there really any limits to what is possible in life? Are there any obstacles that are too great? Indeed, there are some that seem insurmountable. But they only just seem. We have been blessed with unlimited potential. We have been cursed with unlimited doubts.

Plateaus

The obstacles in our lives are only plateaus. They are sticking points that attempt to mire us in the mud. They are not the peaks we attain to, and therefore, we must go beyond them. They are but puzzles waiting to be solved. We must solve them and then continue the journey. Often, they will require all our faculties of body, soul, and mind. Our virtues will be put to the test, especially the one of courage. This is no light matter. But be not faint of heart for our first step in the journey was an act of courage. And all our subsequent steps, they were additional acts of courage reinforcing us and preparing us for the obstacles to come.

If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.

Bruce Lee

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Contemplating Seneca #2: Perfected through Trials

The Cleaning Process

I watched as the blacksmith brought the blade to the grinder. He turned on the motor and touched the metal to the belt. A shower of sparks flew to the ground. As the smith worked, the metal in his hand began to shine. The imperfections on the surface slowly disappeared. What was once a raw chunk of steel transformed into a beautiful blade void of flaws.

Of course, this is not called the cleaning process, but that is what it reminded of. With heat and friction, the impurities were removed.

A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials. -Seneca

Gems mined from the earth do not look like the ones seen in the jewelry stores. They must be cut and then polished. If the impurities are not removed, then they won’t attain their higher value.

When we come into this earth, we are but uncut gems. To attain our highest value, we too must be refined. This can only happen through heat and friction. It can only happen through trials and testing. The beautiful phoenix only rises from the ashes. Like the phoenix, we too must rise from the challenges presented to us in this life.

For many of us, we live in a world full of abundance. We have more food, comfort, and security than the generations that went before us. Yet somehow, we have become weaker and more susceptible to disease. Our abundance has created more imperfections. And when the real trials come, the same trials man has faced since the beginning of time, how will we be able to overcome them? Will we be able to rise from the ashes?

We do not know what obstacles we will face in the future, but we can start preparing now. We can begin the cleaning process in our lives. We can search out our impurities and remove them. Today, I challenge you to consider your weaknesses. What are the things you don’t like to do because they make you feel uncomfortable? Is there something you can do today to help you overcome these issues? If you can create your own trials, you will be bettered prepared to face the real thing when the time comes. Friction and fire to create the shine and remove the impurities. Trials to bring you closer to perfection.


Feature photo by C D-X on Unsplash

Destroying Illusions

What were my illusions?

What are some common illusions?

  • The government has you in their best interest.
  • Corporations are more interested in taking care of their employees than making money.
  • Food labelled as healthy is actually good for you (sometimes this is not the case).
  • Pharmaceutical companies are interested in getting you healthy.

Truth vs. Tribe

Sometimes the truth hurts. It shakes us to the core and challenges our previously held beliefs. Sometimes the tribes we belong to become more important than the truth. We see this in politics, in nutrition and health, and even in religion where the sacred can become profane. A good example were the poor souls who drank the Kool-Aid. Another example would be the cures nature has provided for us being touted as evil and made illegal only to be replaced by synthetic drugs designed to mask our symptoms and keep us unhealthy.

Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed. Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

Make no mistake, I am not saying everything we have been told is a lie. I am not saying every tribe is corrupt or every belief system we subscribe to is flawed. But we owe it to ourselves to look at everything with a critical eye and not accept it on blind faith. We must do the research. We must be willing to dig down and search for the truth. And if the truth shatters our illusions, then we will be one step closer to freedom.


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What You Do

This is a continuation of the post: I Don’t Know It. If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so.

From my earliest years, I have been on the hunt for wisdom. King Solomon said wisdom is calling us, and all we must do is heed the call (Proverbs 8). I took this literally. I also made the Book of Proverbs a staple in my daily reading. Initially, I believed there were two major keys to acquiring wisdom. First, you must collect as much knowledge as possible. Then, you must do your best to understand it. For most of my life, this was my modus operandi. Yet, something was lacking.

I thought the world would benefit from my vast stores of wisdom. I thought the masses would flock to me for guidance. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. However, I did believe I would be more valuable to the world if I wasn’t a complete fool. All I had was the wisdom found in books. A good thing no doubt, but wisdom is more than book smarts. It is more than theory. If I genuinely want to be wise, I must learn the practical application of wisdom. I must get out of the perpetual classroom that I am living in and get into the experimental aspects.

The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do. -Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Action. It always comes down to action. Or in the case of wisdom, it comes down to application. And this is where I went wrong for the longest time. We know knowledge does us no good if we don’t understand it. And what is the purpose of knowledge and understanding if we don’t know how to use it? We can have a theory about what is in the great unknown, but it is not the same thing as actually venturing into the unknown. We must get out of the classroom and get into the world.


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Emperor’s Log #28: The Strength of a Calm Mind

The fictional character Rand al’Thor was a hero in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. In the books, he wielded tremendous power, but he also had a problem. He couldn’t always control it. To tap into the source of power, he had to enter a mental void. To practice control and to refine his ability to utilize this power, he practiced staring into a flame. This practice would allow him to empty his mind of all distractions. Simply put, he meditated.

When I am angry, I lose control. My defenses are weakened, and I open myself to attack. All the ground I have covered is lost. Confucius said, “When anger rises, think of the consequences.” In the moment, it is difficult to think of the consequences. Wise words indeed, yet not so easy to apply.

Little effort is required to get angry. And once angry, control is lost. Power becomes unwieldy. In truth, anger is weakness.

"The nearer a man comes to a calm mind the closer he is to strength. -Marcus Aurelius

The key is meditation. Even if it is a moment to gather yourself and your emotions before acting. When the conflict arises, take a step back. Don’t allow your ego to gain control. Instead, calm yourself and determine what you should do and the possible outcomes. Nobody wants to be weak. So, if you want to be strong, find a way to calm your mind.

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow.

Chinese Proverb

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I Don’t Know It

 “What do you know,” asked the voice on the other end of the line. It was the standard greeting whenever I call this friend.

“I don’t know it,” I replied. It was a deviation from the standard, “I wish I knew.”

For the last twenty years, this has been the opening salvo of our conversations. Over the last twenty years, I have gone to great lengths to gather as much knowledge as I can. I have done my best to understand the things I have learned. Knowledge and understanding. My quest for wisdom has always started with these two: knowledge and understanding. And yet when I am asked what I know, my answer is still, “I don’t know it.” I wish the answer was different. I wish I knew it. But the knowledge I accumulate only leads me to the realization of just how much I don’t know.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

Confucius

The great Eastern sage makes a great point. One that even his Western counterpart, Socrates, agreed with when he said, “One thing I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Does this mean I now have real knowledge? Not even close! Too many things have prevented me from attaining the thing I desire most, namely my ego. I have often grown arrogant in the few things I do know. When brief flashes of enlightenment have come in the form of understanding, I have found pride in the accomplishment. But in truth, I am but a lowly student and cannot afford the debt of pride. Who am I to think I have found mastery?

The person on my phone call often says I am the wisest person he has ever met. I can’t help but wonder if he should broaden his horizons to include more wise people. If I only had a portion of my friend’s wisdom, I would be much wiser than I am today. I might even be considered somewhat successful. Yet, that is not the case. Therefore, my quest continues.


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Happiness, not Amusement

Maybe, the crowd was not prepared for all the blood and the gore? Sure, that is why they came to the arena in the first place, but this? The fighter was too efficient, too merciless. They had never seen anything like this before. Instead of a scared and bumbling idiot with a weapon, they saw a warrior. They saw the Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius.

Of course, the movie Gladiator is fiction, but it gives a glimpse of the lengths people go to in their search for amusement.

Amusement is a diversion from the ordinary. It is a get-away from reality. The world spends around 2 trillion dollars a year in entertainment. It has become something we are constantly seeking. And if we are in a perpetual state of amusement, we don’t have to face reality. We don’t have to confront the hard things in life.

Escapism. That is what we are looking for. We want the release of dopamine derived from watching sports, movies, and social media. We want the excitement, and we will go to great lengths to get it. Even though we know it is fleeting, we will still look for it. And when the buzz is no longer sufficient, we will continue down the path even if it means we must find a harder drug.

Happiness is not found in amusement.

Aristotle

Unlike amusement, happiness doesn’t have to be fleeting. Instead, it can be a state of being. You can find happiness in the mundane. You can find it in doing a day’s labor. You don’t have to go to greater and greater extremes to find happiness. You can just be happy. It is in your mind. It is in your perception.


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But My Mind Will Remain

For the last five years, Man’s Search for Meaning has been on my to-read list. For the last few weeks, with an increase in anxiety levels for the future and pondering the meaning and purpose of my existence, I decided to finally open the pages of this book by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

Before World War II, Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist. He was a respected man in his community. He was also Jewish living in a part of the world that was more interested in his ethnicity than in who he was as a person. He was removed from his home in Vienna in 1942 and spent his next three years in a several different concentration camps. All his possessions, his work, and even his name was taken away from him. He, like his fellow prisoners, was identified by a number. His life became one of forced labor with only a meager ration of bread and watered-down broth for sustenance.

So far, this book (I’m only halfway through) has been remarkable, but there has been one passage that has been exceptionally memorable. Frankl was asked to give words of encouragement to his fellow prisoners. In his speech, he spoke of the suffering they had endured. But despite this suffering they still had reason to hope. Despite what they had been through and what they were reduced to, there was still meaning for their lives. I have read his speech over and over and was left with one overwhelming thought. No matter what their conditions, no matter what tortures the guards inflicted on their bodies, they still had the power of their minds. And their minds could not be touched unless they allowed them to be touched.

If you lay violent hands on me, you’ll have my body, but my mind will remain on Stilpo.*

Zeno

Throughout history, man has always tried to rule over his fellow beings. They have found ways to exert ownership over those they deemed to be inferior. And though they may have found success in owning the bodies of others, they could never own their minds. Our minds belong to us, and they are unable to be owned by another, unless we allow them to. It reminds me of another philosopher who was once a slave. Epictetus said, “Any person capable of angering you becomes your master. They can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by them.” For most of his life, Epictetus did not own his own body. But for his whole life, he owned his mind.

Many of us will never have to endure the suffering Frankl endured in the concentration camps. But in our own ways, we are all fighting a hard battle [link]. Our suffering may be unjust, but it has meaning. It is up to us to not lose hope and remember that what does not kill us will make us stronger (Nietzsche). We cannot always control what happens to our bodies, but we can always control our minds.


Feature photo the Auschwitz Concentration Camp by Frederick Wallace on Unsplash

*Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was influenced by the Greek philosopher Stilpo (360-280 BC)

Do the Things You Have to Do

I watched as my son reluctantly pulled the homework out of his backpack. There were so many other things he wanted to do after a long day of school. Instead of winding down or playing outside before the sun set, he was digging into more math and grammar problems. He didn’t want to do it, but he knew he must.

What must be done

I only partially learned this lesson in school and my grades reflected it. The lesson hit its mark in the Army. You do what you must, or you pay the price. In this case, the price was paid in full through pain. And as John Patrick said, “Pain makes man think. Thought makes man wise. Wisdom makes life endurable.” [Read: Feel the Pain, Make the Change]

Unfortunately, back then, doing what I must only extended to my professional life. I didn’t have the discipline or the courage to extend it to my personal life. As a result, I suffered. The pain I felt was dull, and therefore, I continued to do what I wanted rather than what I should have done.

Education through pain and experience

Professors Pain and Experience may have been my two greatest teachers. Early on, they were instrumental in my education. It was through pain that I learned the consequences of getting burned, to identify what was toxic if I ate it, and what will hit me if I upset it. Pain taught me how to survive. Experience, how to thrive. In time, they tutored me on how to bridge the gap between the personal and professional. Without them, I would be dead. But with them, I learned how to live.

The most valuable of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it has to be done, whether you like it or not.

Aldous Huxley

Is our traditional education system broken? Some would think so. Yet, there is still value in it if we learn from Huxley’s words. Learn to do what you must, whether you like it or not. But consider the things you must do. Weigh them carefully. Is it that which you must do for yourself, or is it that which someone else thinks you must do for your own good? There is a big difference.


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