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

Examining Epictetus #35: Memento Mori

One day, I will leave this body. Death will come, and there is no stopping it.

Time. Once it is lost, it is gone forever. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Space I can recover. Time, never.”

Death cannot be cheated. Time cannot be recovered. It almost sounds inevitably depressing. Doesn’t it? But…

If I spend one good hour in a fruitful endeavor, would I mourn the passing of that hour? Of course not. The only hours I would regret would be the ones wasted in vain pursuits.

In a similar way, I should consider death. When my time comes, will I mourn a well-lived life? Absolutely not, for I made the best use of what I was given. Time doesn’t even matter here. Well-lived over ten years or a hundred is still well-lived. My only regret at death would be if I never really lived at all.

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Death is a part of life. Live well and there will not be a need to mourn when your journey comes to an end. Mourn not for others who have lived well and are also at an end. Rather, we should celebrate their life and wish them well on their next adventure. Our separation from them will indeed be sad, but such is life, and such is death. This we cannot prevent. All we can do is continue to live and walk our own journey.

I am not eternal, but a human being; a part of the whole, as an hour is of the day. Like an hour I must come and, like an hour, pass away. – Epictetus

Memento Mori. Translated from Latin, it means to remember death. This is not a morbid thing but rather a call to live the life you have been given.

Foolish Delay

The tanks lined up baking in the Georgia sun. Soldiers were trying to find ways to best pass the time. Some were napping, others playing cards, and one was reading. I asked him if it was any good when he finished it. He said it wasn’t bad and then offered it to me. I accepted it desperately looking for something to do to take my mind off the monotony of the day.

It was The Tale of the Body Thief, one of the Vampire Chronicle books by Anne Rice. I remembered watching the movie in the theater a few years before. I enjoyed the movie and thought why not give this book a try. It was the first time since High School that I picked up a book to read solely for pleasure. The year was 1998 and became one the turning points in my life.

That year, I caught a bug. It was a reading bug that I hadn’t had since my elementary days. After finishing that book, I proceeded to read all the Vampire books. Then I read all of Rice’s witch books. Over the next few years, I discovered Wilbur Smith, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Bernard Cornwell, and read all the books I could get from them. When I was took a break from them, I went back to classics: Dickens and Dumas with a little Hemingway.

Then a time came in my life when I thought I could do that too. I could be a writer. And so I started to write. The ideas came from all over the place. I thought they were good. But my writing, it was bad. I struggled to convey my thoughts into words that would flow effortlessly onto paper. Yet I was determined to be a writer. After all, I had already told my closest friends that this was finally the calling in my life I had always been waiting for. I was going to make it work.

Then one day a seed of doubt entered my mind. I imagined all these writers were aged men and women of wisdom. I imagined that they had all lived lives full of experience, and only in their twilight years were they able to create their masterpieces. Who was I, one so young and naïve, to be able to compete with that? I had no life-skills other than that of an infantryman. Of the world, I knew very little. I was simply not ready to be a writer.

If you wish to be a writer, write. –Epictetus

I should have taken the philosopher’s advice. What I wanted to do wasn’t supposed to be easy. I wasn’t naturally talented, and at the time I lacked the discipline to keep practicing. When the motivation wore off, I postponed my dreams with the lame excuse of not being experienced enough. And how exactly was I going to get that experience if I wasn’t writing?

There is a silver lining in all of this reminiscing of a misspent dream. Somewhere deep within, I maintained a glimmer of hope that I could still be a writer. My appetite for reading never wavered, and in that I was still developing my literary mind. Of course if I would have kept practicing, my skills as a writer could have been much better. But as much as it pains me to think on this revelation, there is nothing I can do about it. The past is gone, never to be relived. But today, and the days to come, that is another story. That time is not yet spent and can be utilized toward that endeavor. I can become who I dream of being. I can become more disciplined. I can practice this craft and be the best I can be.

Epictetus asked, “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best of yourself?” It is a wise question worth keeping in mind. When standing before the Almighty on the Day of Judgment, you will not be asked how you measured up to your peers and fellow humans. There will be no comparison of bank accounts and social media likes on St. Peter’s ledgers. But if the Master asks you what you did with the talents He gave you, how will you answer? Will you say you buried them and kept them safe? Or will you take the talents you have been given and invest in them and let them grow? You can be a good steward of the gifts you have been given or you can be the lazy one? In the beginning I was the lazy one, but thankfully my eyes were opened before it was too late. In that I was fortunate to be given a second chance.

Moving Mountains

Faith 11/1/2019

I am thinking about this new house my wife and I recently purchased. It is a lovely 1972 ranch that has not been updated since 1972. It is almost overwhelming when I consider how much needs to be done to it.

Right now, we are working on the kitchen, ceiling, floors, garage, and the land. Each area seems to require immediate attention. This house is a mountain’s worth of projects, and we can only move it one stone at a time.

The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away a small stone. –Confucius

When I take a look at my own personal journey, it isn’t much different than the house. On this quest to become the best I can be mind, body, and soul, I am discovering that it will take a lifetime. In a world full of distractions, where so many people and “stuff” are vying for my attention and time, the best I can hope to do is chip away a little bit at a time. The progress from day to day may seem minuscule. But if I persist daily, then the body of work over the decades will seem monumental. I will indeed have moved my own mountain.

We don’t luck into progress. We work on it every day. The other ways to get ahead may seem more desirable, easier, but they are fleeting and will not garner the same appreciation and gratitude as the slow way. Work on yourself daily and see the mountain of results build up over a lifetime.

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

Live Your Philosophy

We all have our personal truths that we believe beyond a shadow of a doubt. It could be our faith, politics, or something on a smaller scale such as nutrition or how to live a good life. We could try to explain our beliefs to others and convince them with our words. But if you really want others to share in your truth, you must show them by your actions.

One of the books I am reading right now is Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m am about halfway through, and though the subject matter might be a little over my comprehension level (a lot of google involved), I am doing my best to make it through. In the book, the author speaks of those who make decisions but do not have to live with the consequences. Think of politicians who never pay the consequences for their decisions. But the real heroes in the world are the ones who take the risks and live with the consequences, whether good or bad.

To have skin in the game of whatever philosophy you believe in, you must live it, not just speak about it.

Courage 2/28/2019

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

The body is the foundation, but if you are not developing the soul and spirit, you will always be lacking.

____________________

The Virtue of Courage

Do you have the heart to forge ahead? Can you keep going even though your body and your mind wants you to stop? There are those who bend underneath the pressure, and then there are those who have the fortitude to continue standing. The heart of courage, a chief virtue of the soul.

_____________________

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Take Control

Control. Do you give much thought to it? What is in your control? What is not?

Take for an example your body. The unknown condition growing within you was more from chance than from neglect. Was this in your control? Of course not. Exercising every day with a good diet didn’t stop the tumor. It just, as far as anyone knows, happened.

Or what about the weather? It wasn’t your doing that caused the storm and the landslide that wiped out your home and possessions. Random chance. No gods conspiring against you. It just happened.

So many things that are out of our control, but even during the most chaotic times, we can always be in control of one thing. Our minds.

The stoics were big on this: We can control the things within our control. And for all the things that are not in our control, at least we can control our minds and how we deal with it.

We don’t always get a fair shake. That’s life. So how do you respond? Do you get angry? Do you give up? Do you shake your fist at God and blame Him for your problems? You are one of a billion with countless others that have gone before you and countless more to come, yet you think the universe has singled you out and dealt you these cards?

It just happened, as it happens to many others in some fashion or another. We take the cards we are dealt. We can’t change the cards; they are not in our control. What is in our control? How we play the game. You can fold at every hand or you can play. Control what you can control. And if everything is out of control, rest assured, that your mind is your own and that is something you can always control. Take control.

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. -Epictetus

Response to Adversity

 

I had a service appointment for my car this morning. My overnight shift at work ended at 4:40 a.m., and I drove across the street to the service center to wait until they opened up at 6:30. I brought Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life to read while waiting. I finished up Rule #8: Tell the truth-or, at least, don’t lie. This is an excellent chapter about telling the truth to others and to yourself.

My car was done by 7, and I was soon on the highway home. At 7:15 my newly serviced car greeted the rear bumper of the car in front of me. I slowed down when I saw the brake lights ahead. But when the car in front of me made a sharp dip at the front, I knew my car would not be able to slow down in time. We made contact. It wasn’t much and nobody was hurt, but still contact is contact. We called the police and did all the things you do post-accident. The officer issued me a citation, told me he understood the situation, and if I appeared in court, they would help me out. I was the one at fault.

If this would have happened 5-10 years ago, I may have been inclined to blame anything and everything. It wasn’t my fault that the car two ahead slammed on their brakes. Not my fault that I haven’t gotten enough sleep on this overnight schedule. Not mine that it was past my usual bedtime due to the service on the car. Heck, it wasn’t my fault that the Fates lined up against me and dealt this blow.

I could have possibly spun a good story spreading blame, but who the person I am today is not the same person from the past that would have done that. I have been on a stoic journey that is constantly gauging my response to my external environment. I just read Rule #8 about telling the truth. The truth is that I hit the car in front of me. It wasn’t intentional, but I did it. Nobody else, me.

Now the reparations need to be made. I owe the legal system and the insurance company. This will cost my family money that could be better utilized elsewhere. This will cost me time away from work to make a court appearance. When it is all said and done, there will be a price required for what I did.


Everything in my life seems to be a lesson these days. Take my health for example. I may be my fittest in years. I exercise every day. I eat healthy. I believe I am doing all the right things. A few weeks ago, I got the flu. How could this be? I’m doing all the right things. But no matter how strong and fit I make my body, it is still a fragile, frail human body. It was a ridiculous thought that I could overcome the ability to get sick through fitness. Maybe I can offset a few of the effects or recover faster, but be immune to illness? What’s next in this illogical thought process? Overcome death somehow. Absurd.

The lesson that I am learning is not how to control future events. I can prepare and try to prevent all I want, but I am far from omnipotent. The lesson is about how I respond to adversity. Can I tell the truth even in difficult situations, to others and to myself? Can I not be angry when I feel like I have been dealt a bad hand? This is life. The opportunity for learning these lessons will be present until death, and it is not just a lesson for me. It is one for my son. It is one for everybody. Good times are not guaranteed to last forever. How will you respond in the dark days ahead? When confronted with adversity, will you be able to tell the truth?

Man is not affected by events, but the view he takes of them. -Epictetus

Silence Is Golden

They are everywhere. You know them, if not by sight, then by the constant noise uttered from their mouths.  I have worked with several over the years. One in particular, couldn’t shut up to save his life. He was always talking. And the more he talked, the more foolish he sounded. The guy was ultimately looking for attention and trying to get it the only way he knew how. In the end, the attention he was seeking cost him his job. He should have just stayed silent.

Another guy comes to mind that I still work with from time to time. I wrote about him once and called him the mechanic, as that was his background. When I first met him, he seemed different. He hardly ever spoke. In this day and age, that silence is rare. I asked him once about it. I wanted to know why he was so quiet. I will never forget his answer. He said, “I don’t want to sound like an idiot.” Can you imagine the wisdom in this response? Through not speaking, nobody would ever know if he was or was not an idiot. His silence would never give others the opportunity to find out. His silence was indeed wisdom. His silence was golden.

But what if he was lacking in wisdom? Wouldn’t he be considered a fool? It is not something any would desire. What good is there in being a fool, unless you are a silent fool? As Frances Bacon said, “Silence is the virtue of fools.” If you are going to be a fool, at least you don’t have to broadcast it to the world.

From what I could tell, the mechanic was by no means foolish. And for someone in his early twenties, he was even wise beyond his years. But the world we live in is quick to judge that silence for something else. There are those that want to think something is wrong with the quiet person. However, the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus had a response for that, “If your silence is mistaken for ignorance and you are not upset by it, then it is a real sign of progress.” Imagine that, truly water off a duck’s back. Don’t let what others think bother you. You have your reason for silence –to not sound like an idiot. Now you are making progress towards that endeavor.

It is all well and good that I can make this observation in others, but how does this apply to me? Seeing this wisdom in others does no good if I cannot apply it to my own life. I have been guilty of letting my mouth run too much. On occasion, I have deserved that moniker, “acting the fool.” My most powerful words have been the ones most thought out. My greatest points did not come from rambling, but from careful thinking. I have to be on guard and not allow my tongue to get out of control. If I do not, I may be in danger of receiving that title I truly detest: fool.

There is another area in which I need to be careful. I am on a journey. Over the last six months, my life has gone through some amazing transformations. I have known for some time that I needed a change. I was not happy with the direction my life was going. I started to become really conscious of what I put into my body and mind. In a sense, I have been brainwashing myself on ways to change my life for the better. Some colleagues have noticed this change and have been asking questions about it. I have been rather free in describing what I am going through, but even here I have to be careful and not get carried away. Once again the words of Epictetus come to mind, “Don’t brag about the principles you follow in life. Don’t even mention them to others. Instead, act according to those principles.” Action is a powerful thing and often speaks for itself. I can always be like the mechanic, who is an incredibly efficient worker whose actions speak louder than his words.

My son:

Those who spare their words are truly knowledgeable, and those who are discreet are intelligent. -Proverbs 17:27