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


Feature photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

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)

Examining Epictetus #29: Working on Yourself Daily

The only way to achieve real growth and progress is to work on yourself daily. It is often boring. It is slow and steady work. There will be no monumental gains from day to day. Rather, the growth is incremental.

Look for opportunities in each day. What can you subtract from your life? What can you add in its place that will take you to the next level? Analyze. Adjust. Reflect. Refine. Make your habits serve you. Become the master of your own destiny through constant and relentless work. Do this daily, and you will be surprised at what you become.

Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily. -Epictetus

Feature photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Examining Epictetus #14: Creating Greatness

One of the great joys of my job is the conversations I get to have with co-workers. This week, I had the good fortune to speak with an enterprising associate who spends his time away from work as a personal trainer. As we were talking about some of the things we have learned since our last conversation, he mentioned he was still only on year four of his personal transformation. Now, this personal transformation goes beyond fitness. This is a complete change of mind, body, and soul. After hearing him speak, I fully understand the meaning of “like attracting like.” I couldn’t help but be amazed as I am also several years into my own personal transformation.

No great thing is suddenly created. -Epictetus

This journey has been full of ups and downs. It has not been the easiest road to travel. You can’t plan on overnight success. I set out with a five-year plan. But honestly, I don’t think I will ever come to the end of my quest.

What my friend is looking for, and what I am looking for, is greatness. And the beauty about being great is that our definitions are not the same. We define it on our own terms, pursue it on different paths, and measure it the best we can. We are not competing against each other. We are competing against ourselves. And when the smoke clears, if we continued to run the race, we will be victorious. We will have become great.

No great thing is suddenly created. When I get impatient, let those words be a reminder. When I am feeling down or frustrated, let me not forget. Greatness would not be great if it was given and not earned.


Feature photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

A Formula for the Impossible

Examining Epictetus #30: A Formula for the Impossible

In The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performer’s Primer, Steven Kotler suggests there is a formula for achieving the impossible. And as preposterous as achieving the impossible sounds, consider how many impossibilities were overcome just in the last few years. Apparently, impossible is really “not possible yet.”

Start with the end in mind.

To achieve the impossible, we must start with the end in mind. The end is what you want to accomplish in your lifetime. This is your massively, transformative purpose (MTP). MTPs include curing cancer, solving world hunger, and other types of world-changing goals. In other words, the things that seem impossible now but can be conquered in the future.

To find your MTP, start by creating a list of 20-25 items you are interested in. These are items that you might be interested in learning about over a free weekend. Review your list and find out how they intersect with another. Spend time in those intersections and see how they relate. Learn the history and jargon on the subjects you are interested. As you work through your list, a purpose might come to you. Maybe this purpose is massive and transformative.

Segment your MTP

Next, you must create milestones. These are the high, hard goals (HHG). An example would be writing a book in your newly found niche. Your HHGs may take years to complete. That is okay. The HHGs are the milestones along the road to your purpose in life.

Work daily on your HHG

You have your MTP. You have your first HHG. What’s next? Now is the time to break down your HHG into clear goals. These are the small daily tasks that need to be completed each day. If you are writing a book, this would be to complete a certain number of words daily.

Clear goals need to be in line with your HHG. If you honestly believe in your MPT, then the clear goals are the most important tasks you can do in a day. Therefore, it is best to go after them first and get them done.

What about tasks that are not a part of your clear goals? They must be eliminated or pushed back as much as possible. If they are not a part of your MTP, how important are they? And if it can’t be avoided, then you will need to schedule your clear goals around it. The objective is to complete the clear goals.

Epictetus said, “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and then proceed to greater.” I doubt Epictetus was speaking about your goals and massively transformative purpose, but the principle still holds true. Every day practice the little things (your clear goals) and create a series of daily wins. Stack up enough clear goals, and you will find yourself moving closer to your major milestones (HHGs). Keep stacking and in time, you might find yourself achieving the impossible.

Examining Epictetus #20: More than an Athlete

Over the last few weeks, Alec has been going to bed early so that he can spend about thirty minutes reading before going to sleep. As this is what I do every night, it is a super-proud moment for me.

What he can do physically, I can only dream about. I’m almost jealous. I mean honestly, that kid has more muscle definition and a legit six-pack crammed into his little body. But for all his physical prowess, he has taken the initiative to build his brain. I can almost feel the tears of joy running down my cheek.

My goal in life has always been to achieve balance. I want to be in peak condition in all three facets of my life (body, soul, and mind). Too often we see the meathead with no brains or the genius with no heart. But nobody wants to emulate a character from the Wizard of Oz. What good is a one or two-legged stool? Too much in one direction, and you will find yourself toppling over.

Have I achieved it? Of course not, but I am getting a little closer every day. Sometimes I lean more in one direction. Maybe this is a natural state. But after some time and a bit of introspection, I realize I am getting little wobbly. It is in these times that I must recalibrate and make the adjustments towards the right direction. It truly is all about the balance.

It takes more than a good-looking body. You've got to have the heart and soul to go with it. -Epictetus

Alec is starting to mature and make grown-up decisions. He is becoming more than just an athlete. He is realizing the value of having a strong mind and heart. He is starting to find his own balance in life.

One Take from the Week #1

Monday morning. I sat down at my desk. The night before was miserable after a lot of tossing and turning and much broken sleep. Opening my email, I saw a group of messages about equipment failures. Monday. Tired. Problems with the equipment. What a way to start the day!

One of the emails came from someone who seems to be always reporting on the issues. Why are the tools always breaking on his shift? This time, he took the time to create a PowerPoint presentation on one possible way we can prevent future issues. It seemed a little irrelevant, also a little over-the-top. I wondered about his motivation. And then I thought…

Why care about his motives? For all I knew, he was doing what he believed was right. His approach was different than mine. Was that really an issue? Was my aggravation with him or was it something else? The more I thought about it, the more I realized the problems are not from him but from me.

  • A poor night of sleep
  • A disrupted morning routine
  • Not setting my intention at the beginning of the day (one super important component to my morning routine)

The equipment malfunction and the email did not come at a good time. And of course, there never is a good time for them, but I was not prepared to deal with it when it did come. And unfortunately, that is on me.

How can I prevent another morning like this? I need to take a moment and think about the root cause for the bad sleep. What did I do the day before? In this case, I stayed up a little later than usual. This was a conscious decision that resulted in negative consequences. Add one more drink to that evening, and I had a recipe for a sub-optimal next day.

Man is not affected by events, but the view he takes on them.

Epictetus

The easy course of action was to blame the messenger. But the messenger was only doing his job in the best way he saw fit. I allowed it to affect me in a negative way, because I was not in the right place to view it objectively. Reflecting on this one moment made me wonder how much weight I give to events based on a misplaced perception. I need to get better at controlling the things in my control and not give too much of my energy on the things outside of it.


Feature photo by CDC on Unsplash

Examining Epictetus #5: Can I Master Myself?

The song kept playing over and over in my head. It was one of the song’s my eight-year-old son likes to listen to. It is not a bad song, just not one I want to have my brain playing on repeat mode.

There was a little rough spot on my finger. It bothered me. I picked at it, scraped at it, and kept messing with it until I ended up with a worse problem than when I began.

How many times have I gone on autopilot, completely unconscious of my actions? How many times did I pop the top on a can that I really didn’t want but opened anyway because it was there? The same could be said for the snack in the pantry, the overwhelming desire to go to sleep (I love my naps), or even the automatic slapping of the snooze button without even thinking about it. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t have complete control of my own person.

Epictetus said, “No man is free who is not master of himself.” Consider this when your automatic actions are no longer serving you. Are you the master of your own mind and able to reprogram yourself? It is a question that I must ask myself. Am I a slave to my passions? Am I in control? And if I am not, and I know I am not, then how can I gain my freedom?

I don’t have the answers yet. I know it starts with mindfulness. It starts with observing my actions and behaviors. Once I realize what I am doing, then I can concentrate on taking the necessary steps.


Feature photo by Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

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

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