“If everybody else jumped off a bridge, would you?”
I heard this question often as a child from well-meaning adults. I hated being asked this. The problem was that I liked jumping off bridges. There was a hint of danger wondering if a train would come down the tracks before I got to the jumping-off point. There was a question of whether the water was deep enough. And of course, there was the question of if I could swim back to shore. In truth, I would jump off the bridge, I just doubted everybody else would.
And if everybody was doing something, would I do it? Well, the majority is not always bad or wrong. And if what they were doing made sense, then why not? I might do it as well. But I haven’t always sided with the majority. In fact, I have found myself usually going against the grain. I don’t eat like everybody else. I don’t find enjoyment in wasting away on the sofa watching television. I may occasionally post to social media, but I abhor the endless scrolling that many prefer to while away the time. And though it often draws the ire of some, I think differently. Rarely do I find myself aligned with the majority. My goal isn’t necessarily to be different, yet here I am.
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane. -Aurelius
Some, even family and friends, have considered me insane. And though their perception of my way of life might suggest so, I believe our definitions of insanity are rather different. To me, insanity is:
Eating cheap and overly processed food with little nutritional value based on the merit of it being tasty and loaded with sugar.
Drawing breath and not actually living.
Constantly watching the lives of others and being triggered by their opinions.
If I can escape that type of insanity, I feel I made the right choice.
The fictional character Rand al’Thor was a hero in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. In the books, he wielded tremendous power, but he also had a problem. He couldn’t always control it. To tap into the source of power, he had to enter a mental void. To practice control and to refine his ability to utilize this power, he practiced staring into a flame. This practice would allow him to empty his mind of all distractions. Simply put, he meditated.
When I am angry, I lose control. My defenses are weakened, and I open myself to attack. All the ground I have covered is lost. Confucius said, “When anger rises, think of the consequences.” In the moment, it is difficult to think of the consequences. Wise words indeed, yet not so easy to apply.
Little effort is required to get angry. And once angry, control is lost. Power becomes unwieldy. In truth, anger is weakness.
The key is meditation. Even if it is a moment to gather yourself and your emotions before acting. When the conflict arises, take a step back. Don’t allow your ego to gain control. Instead, calm yourself and determine what you should do and the possible outcomes. Nobody wants to be weak. So, if you want to be strong, find a way to calm your mind.
If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow.
The music begins. Dancers line up with their partners and begin going through the rehearsed movements. They have heard this song countless times. They have practiced their steps until it became second nature. When the music concludes, everything went according to the script. Everything was perfect.
The wrestler steps onto the mat. Hours of preparation leads up to this moment. Everything that could have been done has been done. The only thing left to do is take on the challenger. The challenger has also prepared for this moment. Here, there is no script. The wrestler has an idea of his opponent’s capabilities, but who really knows what is going to happen when the match begins. All he can do is hope that he can meet the demands of the task at hand. It won’t be perfect. It could be messy. Hopefully, the preparation was sufficient.
We want life to be the dance. We want it to go smooth and unfold exactly as we imagined it. But this is not the case. And if you think about it, this will make for a boring life.
Instead, life is more like wrestling. You train, you prepare, and you hope your efforts were enough to meet the demands thrown at you. You know things rarely go according to the script. In fact, you count on them going off the rails at any moment. A dancer slipping on a wet spot would consider it unlucky. The wrestler expects the wet spot to be there. He expects the obstacle.
The only way to really win in this life is to overcome the obstacles. Train, prepare, and put yourself in the best position possible. The obstacles are coming. This is life. How effectively and quickly you overcome them will determine your success.
The art of living. The true artists in life are like the wrestlers.
Rarely will you ever see their preparations. What looks like grace and style on the stage was developed in the darkness when nobody was looking. They don’t know what obstacles will be thrown at them, but it does not matter. They will meet them head on and do what it takes to get to the next challenge.
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.
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
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.
I turned out the lights and turned on my Kindle. It was bedtime, and the Kindle my nightly ritual. A little light reading before bed helps me sleep. It tires my eyes and quiets my mind. Usually I read a bit of fiction, but this night I read from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The translation I have is old. It is filled with thee’s, thou’s, and thine’s. I like it as it reminds me of the King James Bible.
The emperor had a way with words and the passage from the sixth book did its magic on me. After a few minutes of reading, I had to put the book down. I had to digest the words. Sleep didn’t come quick this night.
Consider where we are right now in this time, in this space. Compare it to the big picture of the universe. A small point in time. A tiny pinprick in the vastness of the cosmos. Here we are, veritable miracles of life, so small and fragile. But here we are, together. Despite all our differences and problems, we are in it together, occupying the here and the now.
We have a tendency to make things seem bigger than they are. Our problems, because they impact us personally seem, to matter more than the problems of those down the street, those across the globe. Yet in the grand scheme of things, they are nothing but minor trifles.
This is the call for unity. When you meet your fellow humans, it is one miracle colliding with another. The dog, the cat, and even the bird on the front porch, all miracles, all points in time and space. True charity is that we treat all our brothers and sisters with love despite our differences. True charity is to honor those we meet with the dignity and respect that all creatures deserve. We are one moment in time, one speck in the universe. Our impact may seem small. But to those we come across, it can be enormous. The waves our impressions leave can lift others and sweep them to safer shores, or it can crash upon them shattering them on the rocks. What impact will you leave today? How will you be remembered tomorrow?
The words of the Stoic Emperor have made their marks on my soul. I hope it has the same impression on your’s:
Asia, Europe are corners of the universe: all the sea a drop in the universe; Athos a little clod of the universe: all the present time is a point in eternity. All things are little, changeable, perishable. All things come from thence, from that universal ruling power either directly proceeding or by way of sequence. And accordingly the lion’s gaping jaws, and that which is poisonous, and every harmful thing, as a thorn, as mud, are after-products of the grand and beautiful. Do not then imagine that they are of another kind from that which thou dost venerate, but form a just opinion of the source of all.
He who has seen present things has seen all, both everything which has taken place from all eternity and everything which will be for time without end; for all things are of one kin and of one form.
Frequently consider the connexion of all things in the universe and their relation to one another. For in a manner all things are implicated with one another, and all in this way are friendly to one another; for one thing comes in order after another, and this is by virtue of the active movement and mutual conspiration and the unity of the substance. Adapt thyself to the things with which thy lot has been cast: and the men among whom thou hast received thy portion, love them, but do it truly, sincerely.–Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations Book 6:33-35
What are the things we put off? You know, the things we know we should do just not right now.
If you think about it, this list for some of us could go on forever. So many things that we should do and can do, but we put off until another day. After the holidays, I will stop eating so much and start a new exercise program. I’ll get around to cleaning the garage when the weather is nicer. On and on and someday maybe, which often turns in to someday never. Unless what you have to do is on a deadline, and then it is a mad scramble to turn in a “not your best” effort.
Imagine the benefits of starting now. Imagine the satisfaction of knowing at least it is over and done with. Could you be better off if you did right now what you want to put off until tomorrow? I know I could be better.
You could do good today, but instead you wait until tomorrow. –Marcus Aurelius
Alec has been going to a new gym over the last couple of months. With no boys’ gymnastics class available in our area, he has moved to parkour. His coach teaches gymnastics as well, and she is demanding some very technical skills from him that he has not had to do before. Even cartwheels, which once were very easy for him, are now nearly impossible for him with the form his coach is requiring. It is tough for him, and his Czech coach does not coddle him like his previous coaches had done in the past. She is actually harder on him than she is on the other students. Why? Because he is the only one in the class with a gymnastics background.
He is frustrated. He is trying, but he has not yet mastered these new skills. Of course it is not impossible, but it sure seems like it to him.
We constantly witness feats which seemed impossible only a few years ago. Remember the Miracle on Ice? The Soviet hockey team could not lose, but they did. Or how about those smart watches? They would make James Bond drool. Yesterday’s miracles are today’s norm. But for all the great feats we see achieved by the modern day titans of our time, do we ever stop to consider that we have the ability to do the impossible too? Why can’t it be you or me that does the next great thing? After all, we are the masters of our own unique skills and traits.
Alec might think that those gymnastic tricks are impossible now, but they won’t be impossible forever. He has to believe it can be done, he has to practice diligently, and he has to grow in his confidence and strength. If it is humanly possible, then he can do it. So can you.
Not to assume the impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that it it’s humanly possible, you can do it too. –Marcus Aurelius
Monday night, I caught a little of the Cleveland Browns vs. San Francisco 49ers football game. In this one-sided affair one incident really stood out to me. Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa of the 49ers sacked the Browns quarterback, Baker Mayfield. It was an excellent play. Bosa then got up and waved an imaginary flag and planted. This was to mock Mayfield’s notorious flag planting of the Oklahoma flag on the fifty yard line of Ohio stadium. That incident happened two years ago, and must have really stung the pride of Bosa. But finally, he got his revenge of national television.
I admit it is a silly analogy in terms of real-life revenge.
Revenge (rəˈvenj) n. to avenge (oneself or another) usually by retaliating in kind or degree. [Merriam-Webster]
I imagine forms of revenge often. Usually for very petty things. I perceive injustices toward me despite the often non-malicious intentions of the offender. When I look back at the acts of actual revenge I carried out in my youth, I can’t help but think how foolish I really was. In truth, the only injury I sustained was to my pride.
Thinking back on football. When there is a scuffle, who is usually the one that gets the flag? It is the one that retaliated. A simple act of revenge that costs the whole team, because the player had to get back at the instigator. He could have just let it go, but instead he allowed his pride to interfere with sound judgment.
Message to my son:
Revenge is a dish best served not at all. You don’t have to get back. The best statement you can make is to go about your business and not seek retribution. In the end, everything will work out. Let karma do its work without your interference. By not retaliating, you will heap coals on the head of your offender and come away blameless.
The best revenge is to not be like that. –Marcus Aurelius
I remember when I was younger, how I pursued worthless things. I wanted things at the present moment, because they were pleasing to the senses. They were things that I didn’t think I could live without, things that once possessed became meaningless. I wasn’t careful with money. I wasn’t careful with time. I lived in the moment, and I paid for it.
Fast forward to today. I am not as wise as I should be and still get distracted by the shiny and new. But I am more cautious today than I used to be. I am more interested in things of lasting value. So what are the things I am chasing today? As I advance in age, I think about what I can leave when I am gone. I think about how I will be remembered. Will my son carry on my values and beliefs and pass them down to his children? Not the shiny stuff I collected through the years, but the legacy I have built. It reminds of the words Benjamin Franklin once 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.”
His words are a call to action for all of us. Chase after the things that matter in life. Pursue something worthy, not the trinkets and baubles that lose their value once possessed.
The true worth of a man is to be measured in the objects he pursues. -Marcus Aurelius