Obstacles in Life

There was a change in Thursday’s practice schedule. It was a little chaotic, and Alec didn’t have a chance to warm-up. This was my fault. I should have had him do it on his own or work a few minutes with the other class.

Right away, I could tell something was off. So far this season, Alec has had phenomenal practices. He has been attentive to the lectures and has given 100% in the drills. I have been happy with his progress. But at this practice, that wasn’t the case. He was distracted during the lectures which made his drill practice subpar. And then when it was time to wrestle, he had no confidence and was beaten by everyone he went against. What was going on?

After every practice, Alec and I have an After-Action Review (AAR). The one after this practice didn’t go well. I highlighted all the things he did wrong. Usually, I start with all the positives and then proceed to the areas he can work on. But in this case, it was all negative. As his athletic manager, I dropped the ball and didn’t consider the underlying factors. Later that night, we talked about what could have been better. We both agreed this was a one-off event, and we would do our best to learn from it and then move on. We also talked about why he was wrestling and its real-world applications.

The Obvious

The obvious application is how to handle a physical confrontation with another person. Wrestling is a great preventative measure against bullies. Bullies do not prefer to prey on a superior target. It does not enhance their reputations if they cannot defeat their opponent. Therefore, the bully looks to target a victim that is deemed mentally and/or physically weaker. A strong capable body and mind is one’s best defense against the bully.

In Relation to Math

As a part of our conversation, we discussed math. Mathematicians must be able to solve the problem in front of them. These problems range in complexity. Some problems are seen often. Once we understand the steps to solve them,  the problems become easier. But other problems are more complex and require more time and effort. Fortunately, most problems have a solution.

The wrestler’s problem is the opponent. The skillset, speed, and strength of the opponent determines the complexity. And like math, there is usually an available solution. The winner of the match is the one who discovers the solution the quickest.

In NOT Giving Up

Wrestling is one of the great sports that effectively taxes the mind and body. Enough pain and frustration will cause the faint of heart to throw in the towel. For the wrestler, the key to victory lies in overcoming the desire to give up. After all, the last one standing gets the crown.

Alec may not participate in the sport of wrestling his whole life. Yet, he will be wrestling throughout his lifetime. He is going to face situations where quitting will be an available option. Whether it is frustration with friends and family, co-workers and supervisors, or kings and countries, he will have to navigate seemingly insurmountable obstacles. What he does now will develop him to meet those future challenges head-on.

The real obstacles in life lie in the heart of man.

Bertrand Russell

The real beauty of wrestling is that it develops confidence and courage. To show hesitation is to show a lack of both. Currently, Alec has neither as a wrestler. He will get there, but he isn’t there yet. My job as his “manager” is to get him there. Of course, I want him to win, but winning at this stage is less important than his journey to excellence. Time under tension is one the best ways to develop muscles. Time under tension (experience) on the mat is going build both his confidence and courage. It is going to enable him to overcome the obstacles he is facing now and the future real obstacles he is going to face in life.

Difficulty shows what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. Why? So that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.

Epictetus

Examining Epictetus #32 Daily Improvements

I am believer in destiny. Specifically, I am a believer in my own destiny. There is a person out there who I am meant to become. If there is one primary objective I have in this life, it is to become that person.

Though I have always believed this to be the case, I have not always lived it. I have spent years trying to discover who this person is supposed to be. I have spent an equal amount of time coasting along and not even searching for this person. And unfortunately, I have also spent a considerable amount of time trying to deny who this person is. Sadly, those were the times when I was my most miserable. To be someone you are not supposed to be is a most unhappy existence.

But what does Socrates say? “Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.

Epictetus

Several years ago, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t happy with my personal progress and needed a change. I got comfortable and was once again coasting through life. Diet and exercise were the first major shakeup. If I wanted to change who I was on the inside, I must change who I was on the outside. It is amazing how many people understand this concept, yet do not take the steps to make this change!

Once I established a routine for my external being, I began to work on the internal. This meant watching less television, spending less time idling through the days, and more time hitting the accelerator on my own development. Believe it or not, this was the easy part. As an avid reader of fiction, all I had to do was switch my content. No longer was I delving into someone’s fantasy world. Instead, I began immersing myself in the real world.

What were the benefits of these two changes? I look and feel better, and I am more attune to my surroundings. A step in the right direction! Finally, my feet were firmly on the ground and walking toward the person I was supposed to become. But that step was not enough. I had to keep going by adding more layers. The next step was to share my journey and begin helping others. Yes, I was on a very personal quest, but part of that quest was to leave some portion of this world a little better off than when I found it. And the only way to do that was to keep improving.


Every morning,  I wake up with the desire to take another step. With these words from Socrates in mind, I attend to my own improvements daily. It is truly a delight as I see the progress being made, as well as  the potential of what is to come. Someday, I will be the person I was destined to become. And if I can do this, so can you. All you must do is take that first step.

Examining Epictetus #27 A Life That Flows Smoothly

Whoever is making progress, after learning from philosophers that desire is directed toward good things and avoidance directed toward bad, and having also learned that impassivity and a good flow of life are not attained except through unerring desire and unfailing avoidance—that person will do away with desire altogether, or else defer it to another time, and exercise avoidance only on things within the moral sphere.

Discourses 1.4.1

I listened to the lecture as if Epictetus was alive and speaking directly to me. I know how many times I have failed in the past. I am afraid of how many more failures are to come if I cannot learn from my mistakes. The only choice comes in what I do in the present moment.

All my failures are the result of poor choices. I have gone to life’s creditors too many times and have racked up a massive amount of debt. It was a buy now and pay later in almost every aspect of my life.

I have the standard debt that has now become the norm today: mortgage, car payments, a little on a credit card here, a little on a loan there. If I only purchased based on what I physically had, I would be in the black. As it stands, I only see red.

These days, I generally consume less calories than I burn. Why? Because I am paying off the debt in my body.  Like my financial ledger, my body is in the red. Rather than temperance, I withdrew from the banks of gluttony, drunkenness, and laziness. They freely gave, and I took more than my fair share.

My mind is paying off a debt as well. I could have kept my head down and stayed in my studies. Instead, I wasted my formative years with my eyes on the digital screens. Rather than learning, I chose vain pursuits that used up my greatest asset: time.

In a nutshell, I didn’t contemplate good or bad. I erred toward the bad indulging in the fleeting pleasures of the moment. I made poor choices resulting in debt that I am still paying today.

But if virtue holds this promise—to secure happiness, impassivity, and a good flow of life—then progress toward virtue must involve progress toward these other states as well. For wherever the perfection of anything tends, progress is always an approach towards the same thing.

Discourses 1.4.3-4

I couple of years ago I started a new blog series covering the seven virtues. I felt compelled to write these for my son, compelled to train him toward a life of virtue. I wanted him to be happy, to be a champion in all he pursued, and to have a good flow of life.

How could I train him if my own life was lacking in those areas? Therefore, I put in constantly in my mind. I studied the words and lives of those who went before me. And then, I wrote. In the beginning, I was at odds internally. How could I write to others about things that I continued to struggle with in my own life? Thus began my evolution. I had to be self-effacing and write of my struggles. Rather than be a hypocrite, I had to write many of the messages to myself. I was directing myself toward the promise of virtue.

What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly?

Discourses 1.4.5b

This is what I want for my son. Even more so, it is what I want for myself. Before my journey into virtue,  I was a ship tossed at sea. Every trifle, no matter how small, threatened to capsize me. Instead of controlling the things within my power, I looked to the things outside and played the victim.

To have the life that flows smoothly, I must be the rock Marcus Aurelius spoke about that the waves crash over, standing unmoved while the rage of the sea falls still around it. The rock does not cry out for a respite. Instead, it does what the rock was designed for and bends the sea to its very existence. Rather than conforming to the whims of the world and allowing it to sweep me away from my intended destination, I must bend the pattern around me. I must be the rock.

Look for it in your volition, friend—that is, in your desire and avoidance. Make it your goal never to fail in your desires or experience things you would rather avoid; try never to err in impulse and repulsion; aim to be perfect also in the practice of attention and withholding judgment.

Discourses 1.4.11

To live the virtuous life is simply a matter of choice. It is a matter of righteousness. Choose what is good and right; avoid what is bad and evil. As Epictetus states, our goal is to desire good and not fail in obtaining it. Likewise, avoid the bad and not fail in doing so.

I love the last line in the above selection: aim to be perfect in the practice. It is a goal, not a demand. If you can do it, great! If not, try again next time. The hope is for progress. And what is the progress we are targeting? Being in the present moment and making no rash judgments. It sounds like being even-keel and level-headed, like a rock amongst the waves.

Where is progress, then? If there is anyone who renounces externals and attends instead to their character, cultivating and perfecting it so that it agrees with nature, making it honest and trustworthy, elevated, free, unchecked and undeterred; and if they’ve learned that whoever desires or avoids things outside of their control cannot be free or faithful, but has to shift and fluctuate right along with them, subject to anyone with the power to furnish or deprive them of these externals; and if from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face—the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship—that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.

Discourses 1.4.18-21

Control what is your power to control. That is the key to the smooth flow of life. And that, my friend, is progress.


Feature photo by Nicholas Ng on Unsplash

Examining Epictetus #18: Winter Training

Dachau, Germany. It was a hot July day with the temperature in the middle nineties. I spent the morning touring the concentration camp. From there, I took a train to the town of Dachau to run a 10k race. I was dehydrated and nursing a strained calf muscle. Therefore, it was one the hardest races I have ever run.

After the race, I took the train back to Munich. On the ride, I enjoyed a conversation  with another runner. We spoke of the running scene in Germany and soon our conversation turned to winter running. Training in the winter plays an integral role in the runner’s year. As I listened, I thought of the mild winters in Western North Carolina where temperatures rarely go below the twenties. The thought of running in a German winter was less than appealing.

Six months later, I got a first-hand experience of a Bavarian winter. The temperature hovered near zero, snow covered the ground creating hazardous footing, and a brisk wind blew down the River Isar. The act of running suddenly became arduous. I had to wear more clothes, spend more time warming up, and even more time convincing myself to walk out the door and into the sunless afternoon. As I ran, I remembered the conversation on the train. If I wanted to improve my summer running, then the winter is where I would separate myself from the runner I used to be.

We must endure a winter training, and can’t be dashing into situations for which we aren’t yet prepared.

Discourses 1.2.32

It is in the winter where progress is made. It is the time to prepare for the upcoming season. Everything is more difficult. Progress is exceedingly slow. Yet, here is where courage is developed, discipline is solidified, and weakness is pushed away. To find success in the summer, one must train in the winter.

‘But if we are endowed by nature with the potential for greatness, why do only some of us achieve it?’ Well, do all horses become stallions? Are all dogs greyhounds?

Discourses 1.2.34

We all have the potential for greatness. But as Epictetus states, not all of us will achieve it. Only a few will be a Roger Bannister running a mile in under four minutes, a Michael Jordan dominating the court, or a Michael Phelps swimming laps around the competition. So many of us dream of greatness, yet so few of us will ever get there. As frustrating as it is, this is reality. Should it be a deterrent, knowing the odds are not in our favor?

In short, we do not abandon any discipline, for despair of ever being the best in it.

Discourses 1.2.37

We may never become the best, but we can become good. We can find success in any endeavor we undertake if we are willing to do the work. This should be enough reason even if we never reach an elite level.

Right now, at this moment, I am in the winter of my life. It is cold, dark, and often lonely. Frustration is knocking at the door hoping to bring the cold inside. But this is the time when I am also finding out who I really am and who I will become in the future. Someday, the season may change. I may find myself coming into my summer where things become easier. However, I cannot look at someday. Today is where my focus needs to be. It is winter, and I must train.


Words in italics from Discourses 1.2 by Epictetus

Feature photo by Andrew Krueger on Unsplash

Examining Epictetus #40: This Body Does Not Belong to You

The first inspection on the house I was going to rent went well. There were only a few minor issues with the property, and those were all well-documented. Over the course of the next year, I took care of it like I owned it. After all, this was my home. When the rental agreement expired, we conducted a final inspection. I turned in the keys and moved on with my life.

When I was conceived by my parents, I moved into my new body. Since then, I have tried my best to take care of it, but in truth, I will one day return it to the ground from whence it came. As long as I am in my body, it is the home of my soul and spirit. I do not own this body. Instead, I am just borrowing it on a long-term lease.

Well, what did Zeus say? ‘Epictetus, if it were possible, I would have made your little body and possessions both free and unrestricted. As it is, though, make no mistake: this body does not belong to you, it is only cunningly constructed.’

Discourses 1:1.10-11

How profound are these words! We are only clay in a body that doesn’t belong to us. If Nature or the Earth is truly our Mother, then we must give back to her the bodies we have borrowed. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature. And what is its nature? However God decides.

Discourses 1:1.17

This body that I am renting, what should I do with it? It may not belong to me, but it is my home. Would I let it fall into disrepair because it is only a rental? Of course not! For if my mind and soul are trapped in a toxic environment and are unable to operate in its optimal state, what kind of condition will they be in when they move on and go to their next existence? Can a dull me expect to shine in my next incarnation if it did not have its proper training?

What should we have ready at hand in a situation like this? The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do.

Discourses 1:1.21

This is our situation. This is our knowledge. We are only here temporarily. In time, we must all die. None shall escape. Unable to change this situation, how will I expire? Will I mourn and bewail the inevitable, or will I face it bravely? Will I fight to stay trapped in a corporeal state, which is destined to break down and decay in its attempt to be reunited with the earth? Doing so will only delay the elevation of this spirit to a higher plane.

I must do what is in my power and let go of the things that are not.

That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate if you would be a philosopher, the sort of sentiments you should write down every day and put in practice.

Discourses 1:1.25

A philosopher’s goal is to find the truth, to study it, and then learn how to operate within its parameters. This is my goal. I never dreamed I would be a philosopher. And yet, here I am, a mere student longing to understand.


Quotes from Epictetus’ Discourses Book 1, Chapter 1.

Feature photo by Jairo Alzate on Unsplash

Examining Epictetus #12: To Improve, Seem Ignorant

The quality of your questions determines the quality of your life.

Tony Robbins

The above is one of my favorite quotes of all time. I have spent hours considering it and how to ask a better question. And though I ask many questions on a wide array of topics, I am certain I can still do better.

What is the direction I want to go in life?

Where can I improve?

How can I get there?

The first two questions, I can answer on my own. The last one, however, requires more questions. It demands better questions than the ones I am asking today. I don’t know how to get there because I simply don’t know. And therefore, I must consider these words from Epictetus:

If you wish to improve, be content to be seen as ignorant on certain matters. -Epictetus

A student who wants to attain mastery will watch and learn. She will look at those who went before her to see what they did right and what they did wrong. She will experiment, fail, and try again, repeating the process until it works. She will learn to ask the right questions until she gets the answers she is seeking. If she is humble and doesn’t pretend to know it all, if she is pleasant to work with and working hard herself, those with more knowledge and experience will be more apt to help her.

If we seem to be ignorant in the areas in which we wish to improve, we could one day attain the mastery we seek.

Feature photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

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