Examining Epictetus #13: Becoming Beautiful

Question #1: What makes a human being beautiful?

Is it the filter on your Instagram picture? Is it the cosmetics, the surgeries, the nips, tucks, or lifts? Those things may change perception aligning you closer to society’s beliefs of what is beautiful. But does this really make you a beautiful human being? And in the end, will time not eventually prevail? Our outer shell is going to deteriorate. It is going to succumb to the ravages of nature. Our bodies are destined to return to the earth.

We might find attraction in pretty things, but pretty things do not last. And they do not make a human being beautiful.

Question #2: Shouldn’t it be the excellence of a human being?

If you cultivate the spirit and the soul, it will not deteriorate. Unlike the body, it will last forever. How do you make this excellent? Not through riches, fame, or the number of social media followers. No. If we would be excellent, then we must be good. We must find virtue. Only through wisdom, discipline, justice, and courage can we attain unto excellence. Only through virtue can we truly have faith, hope, and love. This is what we must strive for. This will make us excellent human beings.

What then makes a man beautiful? Is it not the possession of the excellence of a man? And do you, then, if you wish to be beautiful, young man, labour at this, the acquisition of human excellence.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.1

Emperor’s Log #11: All the Small Things

There was a time when I managed a very profitable furniture store in Florida. Of all the stores in the region, this store had the highest dollars per transaction. The sales staff was optimized to drive this key metric. They were engaged, energetic, and proud of their sales abilities.

And then there came a day when it all changed. The top brass of the organization decided to change direction. No longer were they interested in the higher ticket sales. They gave us a new mission: get more customers to buy regardless of the amount they were spending. They told us it would be better to convert a higher percentage of our traffic into sales.

Old model: 20% of 100 customers spending $150 = $3,000

New model: 40% of 100 customers spending $20 = $800

We had no choice to comply. Our merchandise assortment began to change. The big-ticket items were replaced with smaller ones. Our sales began to plummet. At the same time, the economy was going through a difficult recession. I could no longer support the highly curated sales force in my store. Without the high average sales, hours were cut. Motivation was lost. All this happened around eleven years ago. Today, that company that had over 1,000 stores finally shut the doors on its last 500. Bankrupt.

In a highly competitive market, to change your identity is a dangerous choice. The goal is profitability, and there are several different ways to achieve it. Did this company make the right choice? I don’t believe so. There could have been several factors that finally brought this company down. Maybe:

  • The world lost its interest and moved on,
  • They got ate up by the bigger dogs in the market, or
  • The economy dictated that basic needs were more necessary than specialized wants.

Whatever it was, they were no longer competitive. The end goal should have been profitability and somewhere along the way, they got bogged down until they had no choice to shut down.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

I would love to say that on an individual level on I am immune from such catastrophes, but am I? How many times have I lost the big picture and got mired in the bog? How many times has my attention been diverted onto something of little or no significance? No doubt, it has been way too many times. When I think I see the path so clearly ahead, I still get squirreled. When it happens again, and it will happen again, I must not give it more time than it deserves. I need to address it quickly and move on.

A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve. -Marcus Aurelius

Emperor’s Log #22: Five Rules

The words of the emperor Marcus Aurelius…

Rule #1: In your actions, don’t procrastinate.

The message: Loud and Clear. The execution: well, that is another story. Like a door that turns on its hinges, I used to be the sluggard that turned on my bed (Proverbs 26:14). I would like to say those days are long behind me, but the truth is that every now and then I have that day where I get bogged down in the mire without a branch of motivation to pull me out.

It is on those days, that I must remember my purpose. How will I get to where I want to go if I am refusing to move? If I waste away these hours and days, then I will never get ahead.

It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that other’s waste. -Henry Ford

Rule #2: In your conversations, don’t confuse.

There was some concern on my team that I would be too technical in my speech and too wide in my vocabulary. That is an issue I see with others. When they speak or write, I have no clue what they are trying to communicate even though I am trying my best to understand. I know there have been times when I took that path and drove on despite the glazed over eyes and confused brows.

What is the point of all this knowledge and understanding if it cannot be used in a way that improves the lives of others? If we cannot communicate the things we know then we are not helping anybody. But if simplify our language and communicate clearly, we can be effective in helping others to understand. Friedrich Nietzsche could have easily confused us all, but listen to this gem that he gave us:

Those who know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound strive for obscurity.

Rule #3: In your thoughts, don’t wander.

The practice of meditation. Oh man, this is something that I really need. It is something I must practice daily, even several times a day. It is not an easy task to sit still in mind and body. Once my mind strays down into the catacombs, it gets tangled and confused. Time will tick away, and I will still be looking for the way out. But then there is meditation, an internal GPS, which centers me and helps me to regain a sense of direction.

We all have the tendency to wander. The question we must ask ourselves is how long before we can regain the path. We are the masters of our minds. We are supposed to be the ones in control of the direction of our thoughts. Buddha was considered to a master of the art of meditation. Ponder these words attributed to him:

As the fletcher whittles and makes straight his arrows, so the master directs his straying thoughts.

We must harness this energy and direct it where we desire it to go. We must be the masters over our minds.

Rule #4: In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive.

The heart is a muscle. If you train it, it will get stronger. If you don’t use it or even abuse it, you will eventually lose it. If you push it too hard, it will give out on you. You must train the heart, train it -just right.

Your heart is your soul. It is where your courage and intuition reside. It must be trained. Condition it by testing the boundaries. Don’t be too soft and don’t be too hard.

I sometimes test the upper limits of the organ. I want to find comfort in the uncomfortable. It is a good practice as it also tests my soul. It can be scary going there sometimes, but the fear is good, even healthy. We just need to remember these words:

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -not absence of fear. -Mark Twain

Rule #5: In your life, don’t be all about business.

I must catch myself sometimes. There is a relentless pursuit to catch the potential rewards at the end of my goals. The pursuit is exhausting. Am I able to recover from one workout to the next? Am I able to digest my studies before I gorge myself in the next lesson? Are there breaks in between milestones and projects? I might not be going full throttle the whole time, but I do need to stop and refill. The occasional stop won’t prevent me from completing my journey. It may even speed up the process.

The Book of Exodus instructs the children of Israel to rotate their crops (23:10). It is an ancient practice still in use today. And though Seneca is not in the Bible (however his brother does get a mention), he makes a good analogy:

The mind must be given relaxation -a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced -for they will quickly lose their fertility if never given a break -so constant work on the anvil will fracture the mind.

Take a break, recharge, and get back on your journey.

Marcus Aurelius wrote these rules in his private journal over two thousand years ago. True wisdom holds the test of time.  

Feature photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

Under Our Skins

I asked an old professor how it was my fault that someone else was getting under my skin. Epictetus, the great Stoic Philosopher, did not give me a direct reply, but he did give me an answer. How can someone dead for two millennia give me an answer? Am I a medium who converse with spirits?

The answer is both yes and no. No, I cannot communicate directly with the dead. I can speak with them, but sadly I never hear their voices. And though I cannot hear their voice, I can hear the spirit of the words they left behind. I’m reminded of what Ben Franklin said, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.” And the people I consult with, including Epictetus, managed to have their words passed down through the ages.

Any person capable of angering you becomes your master. They can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by them.

Epictetus was a slave for a good portion of his life. And though his master could possess his body, he was never able to possess his mind. I once heard a story about one torture session. Epictetus told his master that if he did not stop applying pressure to his leg, it would break. His master did not stop and broke the slave’s leg. What was Epictetus’s response? He simply told his master, “I told you so.” Consequently, Epictetus would be lame for the rest of his life.

It is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.

The great Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, once wrote, “The best revenge is not to be like that.” [By the way, Marcus Aurelius studied Epictetus] What the emperor suggests is easier said than done. When we feel a perceived injustice, we want to strike back. We do this because of our  bruised egos. We feel that because we are grown adults, we do not have to endure this provocation from others. We must remember that the ideal adult practices self-control. If we can be goaded by another, it is really our own fault. It is a lack of self-control.

Whenever anyone criticizes or wrongs you, remember that they are only doing or saying what they think is right. They cannot be guided by your views, only their own…Say to yourself each time, “He did what he believed was right.”

Our puppy Rooster can be very frustrating. Sometimes he will get out and decide to explore beyond our property. If too close to the road, we will fear for his safety. All the other times, it is just annoying. Rooster’s concept of right and wrong is not based on maliciousness. Whenever he goes exploring, he is doing what he believes is natural. Next time he does this, I need to say to myself, “He is doing what he believed was right.” Maybe by doing this, I will be less annoyed.

If someone criticizes or wrongs you, this would be an idea to keep in mind. Chances are if the tables were reversed, you would hope they responded in a similar fashion. Too many social media battles are fought because there is no tolerance for a difference of opinion. If both parties feel they are right, you will most likely be unsuccessful in changing their viewpoint.

The cause of my irritation is not in this person but in me. -Anthony de Mello

Remember when Paul said, “The greatest of these was love.” * If someone is irritating us, let us not take it out on them. We allowed them to get under our skins. Instead we should treat them with love and get to work on ourselves. Do this, and they may not seem so irritable in the future.

*I Corinthians 13:13

Okay Google, Stop Timer

I will not grieve over his body, for he is no longer there.

Though tears may fall, I will not mourn for his passing.

His life was well-lived, therefore I will celebrate the life that was.

His memory I will honor by sharing his stories and teaching his children’s children what he taught me.

They will know he was a man, a brother, a son, a father, and a husband. He was a teacher, a patriot, a Marine!

He wasn’t perfect, but he was good. A lesson we all should strive to learn: To be good.

Though I will miss him, I am filled with gratitude that he took me in as a son, and that I could call him Father.

May the old Colonel prepare the way for those yet to come. May he be at rest, no longer suffering, free from a body that no longer obeyed his commands.


Click here to see the beginning: Hey Google, Set Timer to 14 Months

Contemplating Seneca #74

Do I really have the time?

Four weeks of not working flew by way too fast. Every day I was able to accomplish projects that would normally take me weeks. Not being regulated by a schedule that involves 10 hours a day dedicated to working a day job really allowed my personal productivity to skyrocket. Not being regulated by a schedule also meant that I became a little more careless in my other activities.

I am all for a little downtime. It is good to be able to relax, spend more time with family, and work on personal projects. But having too much downtime. I was not prepared for that. I thought I was more disciplined, but I wasn’t. I spent too many late nights reading. I spent more time sleeping, when I was finally able to shut the brain down and go to sleep. I even started playing a few games on my phone, which is something I have not done in a long time.

There wasn’t any whole days that I wasted. But the little snatches here and there? Those got away from me. And in truth, there were way too many. I am reminded of the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “Space I can recover. Time, never.” The free time I thought I had wasn’t really free. It was costing me dearly. It was something that once passed could not be recovered.

In thinking about squandered time, there is something I need to keep in mind. I can’t go back, but I can do things differently in the future. I can review yesterday and address the tasks of today. I can remember where I dropped the ball and do everything in my power to not repeat the same mistakes.

Make yourself believe the truth of my words—that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purposeLay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. –Seneca (On Saving Time)

Bragging on the Unknown

How many times did a brilliant idea cross my mind? It started as a small seed and in the course of a few minutes burst into a cloud of grandeur taking over all my thoughts. Soon I get a glimpse of the future and just how far I made it.

Every now and then, the idea continues for a few days. As it stews in my mind, I decide to make a plan and see where this will go. My excitement continues to grow until no longer can I keep it to myself. I mention it to my friends and family. With a look of skepticism, they patiently listen to me ramble on about the beautiful future in which I will exist.

The days go by, and the luster begins to fade. Reality sets in and the beautiful future never comes. Soon the idea that would change everything joins all the other fantasies that caught my attention for a few fleeting moments.

We make our plans. Our excitement grows. We bubble with enthusiasm and before we know it, we are sharing our dreams with anyone that listens. But can we follow through? We know there will be hardships along the way. Certainly we will meet resistance. Will we be able to overcome these obstacles and see our plans to the end?

How much better would it be to keep our egos in check and those plans to ourselves? We cannot forecast the future. We cannot know for certain what is going to happen tomorrow, if we even get a tomorrow.

Of course we should plan for the future. Like the farmer that plants the seed without a guarantee of the harvest, so should we do the work now for the possibility of a better tomorrow. We should collaborate with others in order that we may see our plans to fruition. But let us not brag of our glorious future as if it is already here. Rather let us do the work and be grateful for each day we have the opportunity to do it. The work we do will always resonate louder than any words we might say.

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what any day may bring forth. –Proverbs 27:1

King of You

Food

Alcohol

Sex

Drugs

Laziness

Television

Social Media

Consumerism

Sleep

Anger

Even too much Exercise

There are some things that are beneficial in moderation. But if you notice you can’t escape, if you have become addicted, then you have lost your control. No longer are you free but have become a slave to your passions. You have become a slave to your flesh.

We all have a strength within our minds to control our bodies. We can restrain our need for immediate gratification knowing that there is something over the horizon that is much grander. We can be the kings of ourselves, if we put our minds to it.

The Strength of a Calm Mind

Imagine a strong warrior. He has no weakness. His attacks are well chosen and executed with purpose. There is no chinks in his armor, no weakness in his defense. He doesn’t panic in difficult situations. He is calm and does what is necessary.

In ancient times, the strength of a city was determined by the strength of its walls. If the enemy could penetrate the walls, they could invade the city and plunder its wealth. Protection came from the wall. The stronger the walls, the greater the protection.

A city breached and left defenseless are those who do not control their temper. –Proverbs 25:28

It is hard to think clearly when you are angry. Anger is like a bad drug that impairs your ability to make good decisions. Allowing your anger to control you weakens your defenses. It allows your enemies, whatever/whoever they may be, to penetrate your walls. Once the damage is done, it is difficult to recover. Repairing broken walls is no easy chore.

With a calm mind, our ability to make good decisions improve. Not making irrational decisions means no reparations have to be made. We can always move forward without any damage control impeding our progress. We can be like the strong warrior who moves with precision and strength.

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

Prone to anger? Find a way to control it. If possible, step away from the source of the problem and observe it like an outsider. Often, it is a misguided perception of the issue that allows our anger to form. Rather than react in anger, we can detach from the situation and figure out how to correct it. This is strength.

The Last Day

If you knew today was going to be your last day on earth, what would you do?

For some reason this thought was on my mind as I wrapped up my morning workout. I was wondering whether or not I would exercise on my last day. Granted before I could decide, I would have to know it was my last day in advance. Otherwise, I would have already worked out before the Reaper’s blade would cut me down.

Knowing the short-term benefits of exercise, I think I would have to go ahead and achieve my peak heart rate one last time. I might not benefit from going heavy on that last day, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to get those endorphins flowing. It would give me a boost and help power my productivity to the end. The fact that I workout before the rest of the world is awake is another benefit, since I wouldn’t be taking time away from those I would want to spend time with.

What else would I do on a perfect last day? I might do a little light reading to get my mind right before I see the light. I would also write. I would probably write with a fury all those last minute thoughts that could somehow add to my legacy. Then I would spend the rest of the day with family, preferably outdoors. I would try to speak little and just listen to the voices that would hopefully permeate my soul and accompany me into the next life.

Then the thought comes, what would I not do? I know I couldn’t drink alcohol. If I justified one drink, I would probably justify a second which would lead to more. Who would want to waste away their last day in a drunken stupor? In addition, I wouldn’t watch any television, play any games, or scroll through someone else’s life or the political landscape on social media. I might leave a few messages, but that would be it. Anything that would be a drain on that last day would have to be scrapped, because it simply would not be worth it.

This is the mark of perfection of character –to spend each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, laziness, or any pretending. –Marcus Aurelius

There is so much I would want to do, and so much I would try to avoid. It makes me wonder, why am I not living that way now. How could I have so easily wasted away days, content in complacency, with never a thought to the preciousness of time? And though I can never recover the day gone by, I can begin fresh with this day and all the days to come. Few are occasioned with the knowledge of their last day, but all can live life as if it were their last. I would hope that on my last day, I could say I truly lived. Not just on the last day, but that when I woke up and realized any day could be my last, I never took another one for granted. Memento Mori.