Contemplating Seneca #24: Wisdom for Happiness

It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun.

A happy life. Seneca said it is only possible for the person who studies wisdom. Why is that? Wisdom may not make a person perfect, but it is the pinnacle at the top of the mountain. To study wisdom is to climb the mountain. And as it increases over time, the student learns to avoid foolish mistakes in both words and deeds.

Solomon also said the one who finds wisdom is happy, that her profits are greater than monetary wealth (Proverbs 3:13-15). Money comes and goes, but wisdom, once attained, doesn’t flee. It doesn’t fluctuate based on speculation, inflation, or corruption.

The acquisition of wisdom is a journey that improves and makes life endurable.

This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones. You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose.

Daily reflection. One must take the time to measure progress. The most effective way is to do it daily. Is there a better way to do this self-examination than by journaling?

One of my favorite podcasts is Ben Greenfield Fitness, one of the best shows to learn about human optimization, ancestral living, and biohacking. Check out step #3 from Ben’s evening journaling practice.

As you breathe, for anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes, begin to visualize your day. During this time, I recommend you replay your entire day in your mind like a movie, watching yourself in the third person and identifying what you have done well, what you could have done better, and where you felt most self-actualized and connected to your purpose statement. Watching the character of yourself in your mind, in the third person, ask yourself what you aren’t rooting for the character to do, or wishing they’d done differently, or where they failed and learned. Ask yourself what you are proud of that character doing and how you really see them acting their best. Finally, ask yourself where that person seemed most “in the flow” and doing exactly what seems to be the very reason they are in the movie in the first place. As you play the movie in your mind, stop when necessary and write down in the journal what you have done well, what you could have done better, and when or where you lived your life’s purpose.

Sabbath Ramblings: What My Morning Journaling Practice Looks Like (& How I Combine Breathwork, Visualization, Tapping, Prayer, Gratitude, Service, Self-Examination & Purpose). -Ben Greenfield

Examine yourself; scrutinize and observe yourself in divers ways; but mark, before all else, whether it is in philosophy or merely in life itself that you have made progress.

When I first began journaling, I would write down the events of the day. It was a non-value-added list of bullet points. After a while, I became bored with it as I was not reflecting on a deeper level. Now I try to look at the day from multiple angles. How did I perceive myself in those actions? How did others possibly perceive my actions? What actions brought my life closer to my goals in life? What did I do to not only improve my life but the lives of those around me? What were my good deeds and how can I improve on my bad ones?

Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind.

The purpose of philosophy. It is the user’s manual on how we should live. Nobody cares whether I memorized the lawn mower’s user manual. But if it is their grass that I am cutting, they do care whether I can operate the mower. The same with philosophy. To quote others and study for the sake of knowledge only does no good. Henry David Thoreau said, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” I must do more than just study philosophy, I must practice it. I must be a philosopher.

Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.

Wisdom leads to making good choices. It leads to a happy life. Through daily reflection we can refine our choices in the hopes of preventing the bad ones. Those bad choices are available to us constantly. How do prevent them? We turn to our user’s manual. We turn to philosophy.

Words in italics from Seneca’s 16th Letter to Lucilius: On Philosophy, the Guide of Life.


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The Shade of Knowledge

Every autumn, the four big oaks in my front yard dump thousands of acorns onto the ground. The deer and the squirrels love it. The dogs bark every time they hit the house like small mortar rounds.

The acorns are a nuisance, but that is okay. The amount of shade those massive oaks produce in the heat of summer is worth the hassle. The oaks are a blessing to those who take refuge among their branches, gain respite from their shade, and feed from their fruit.

It is amazing to think that those trees each started out as a tiny acorn. Such a small seed with so much potential energy! When the combination of earth, water, air, fire, and even spirit work their life-giving magic on the seed, the results are nothing short of miraculous. This is true alchemy.

If we do not plant knowledge when young it will give us no shade when we are old.

Lord Chesterfield

The tree is an allegory for wisdom. We plant the seeds of knowledge. We give them the nutrients necessary to grow. And if we do this, then we will reap the blessings in our elder years.


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Proverbs 30:2-3 More Stupid than Any Man

Confucius and Socrates were by no means considered foolish. Instead, they were some of the most brilliant thinkers of their time. And yet, this is what they said:

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. -Confucius

One thing that I know, and that is that I know nothing. -Socrates

There was a king named Agur, the son of Jakeh. Nobody knows who he or his father was. But whoever he may have been, he was wise enough to write the 30th chapter of Proverbs. And how did he start off his chapter? With these words:

Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom nor have knowledge of the Holy One.

Proverbs 30:2-3

I think I have made some progress over the years. But compared to Confucius, Socrates, or even Agur, I have barely even scratched the surface. Whatever stores of knowledge I have accumulated has only led me to the realization that my pursuit is not complete. In fact, it will never be complete.

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.

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What You Do

This is a continuation of the post: I Don’t Know It. If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so.

From my earliest years, I have been on the hunt for wisdom. King Solomon said wisdom is calling us, and all we must do is heed the call (Proverbs 8). I took this literally. I also made the Book of Proverbs a staple in my daily reading. Initially, I believed there were two major keys to acquiring wisdom. First, you must collect as much knowledge as possible. Then, you must do your best to understand it. For most of my life, this was my modus operandi. Yet, something was lacking.

I thought the world would benefit from my vast stores of wisdom. I thought the masses would flock to me for guidance. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. However, I did believe I would be more valuable to the world if I wasn’t a complete fool. All I had was the wisdom found in books. A good thing no doubt, but wisdom is more than book smarts. It is more than theory. If I genuinely want to be wise, I must learn the practical application of wisdom. I must get out of the perpetual classroom that I am living in and get into the experimental aspects.

The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do. -Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Action. It always comes down to action. Or in the case of wisdom, it comes down to application. And this is where I went wrong for the longest time. We know knowledge does us no good if we don’t understand it. And what is the purpose of knowledge and understanding if we don’t know how to use it? We can have a theory about what is in the great unknown, but it is not the same thing as actually venturing into the unknown. We must get out of the classroom and get into the world.


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Between Fake and Real

Some of the richest people you will ever meet are not the ones that drive around in the flashy cars, wear the trendiest clothes, or live in the most upscale homes. Nope. Some of the richest people you will ever meet will come and go without giving you any clues to their wealth.

The ones that would flaunt their wealth may not actually be that wealthy. Even if they seem to have money, they might be poor. They might be in an advanced state of materialism which keeps them always chasing after the next latest and greatest shiny object.

It is best for the wise man not to seem wise.

Aeschylus

Like the fake wealthy are those that would want you to believe they are wise. They will flaunt their sagacity like a fake Rolex on the wrist. They will seek you out so that you may give them the validation they need. But true keepers of wisdom don’t need the show, they don’t need to seek you out. A true guru doesn’t go looking for students. Instead, it is the other way around. The one who would pursue wisdom will go looking for the guru.

Maybe the idea of faking it until you make it works in some areas. But faking wealth until you have it will leave you with less than you started with. And as for faking wisdom, leave that sport for the fools. Rather than faking, pursue. Do the research. Do the work. Become what you want to be, not a shell of something you are not.


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Humility, Fear, Riches, Honor, and Life

Humility

It is said that with pride comes the fall. I have been down that road and chances are, many of you have as well. Humility takes work. And if you are busy working on becoming a better person, when will you have the time for arrogance and conceit. Stay humble. Stay low to the ground. If you do have a fall, you will have a shorter distance to go, and it won’t hurt so bad.

The Fear of the Lord

The priest asked us to close our eyes, and then he asked a question. He said, “How many of you truly love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” I raised my hand. I could hear others raise their hands as well. We put our hands down and were told to open our eyes. Then another set of questions came:

  • How many thanked God this morning for another day?
  • How much time have you spent in prayer?
  • God gave us one book, how much time do you spend reading it?
  • Do you give your first fruits or just whatever you have left over?

We were told to close our eyes again and the same question was asked. “How many of you truly love God with all your heart, soul, and mind?” My hand didn’t go up. I don’t think I was alone.

Break down the commandments and we essentially have two: Love God and love your neighbor. Follow those two, and you are good on the original ten. When I think of loving God, I also think of fearing God. Do I really fear God? If I did, would I live like I do now, or would I live differently?

Riches, Honor, and Life

Pride equals a fall.

Sin equals death.

Humility and fear equal riches, honor, and life.

A proud man wants to flaunt his possessions and abilities. He wants the world to notice him. Most likely, he will live above his means. He will cause others to loathe him. Those he offends would love nothing more than to see his demise. They may even try to bring it about themselves.

Once again, humility takes work. It is the work that brings riches, honor, and life. This is Thomas Stanley’s Millionaire Next Door. This is the one that has much but doesn’t draw attention to himself. This is the one that stays low to the ground and does the work.

The results of humility and the fear of the Lord is riches, honor, and life.

Proverbs 22:4

From Reading to Being

I read Historical Fiction. I lived in a make-believe past. I read Fantasy. I went into a fairy tale world. Historical Fiction and Fantasy, with a dabbling of Science Fiction made up the bulk of my reading for over ten years. What do I have to show for it? I can sit for long periods at a time, and I have a rather decent reading comprehension level.

 And then one day, about four or five years ago, I picked up some Non-Fiction. I figured with all the reading I do; I might as well learn something. My life has not been the same since. I went from leadership and psychology to health and fitness. Whatever I came across that I felt had the ability to improve my life, I read.

What has been the benefit? Almost every facet of my life has become a little bit better. In my opinion, the transformation has been amazing. I think different, feel different, and may even look a little different. There is a quality of life I imagine living and every day I get a little closer to it. All because I changed what I read about.

What you read when you don’t have to determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

Oscar Wilde

Nobody forces me to read. And unless you are in school, nobody is likely to force you to read. It is a choice with a myriad of benefits and very few cons. Regardless of age or ability, there is a wealth of wisdom available to us. The only thing holding us back is us. Make the choice to read. What is the worst that can happen?

A Realization that Leads to Wisdom

Through the eyes of a child, we put our parents on a pedestal. Even an abusive parent will still be loved by the child. The parent is the child’s world, that is all that they know.

As the child gets older, her world gets bigger. She sees the varying ways in which others live. What she imagines as perfect changes. No longer is her narrow scope of reality the only possible way of existence. Now, there are other possibilities. As she grows older and matures, she realizes that it is not an imperfect environment that she lives in, but an imperfection in the people she lives with.

She could live her life in perpetual adolescence, jaded and angry with the world. The hardships she was made to endure by her guardians, she could carry with her until her dying days. It was their fault she turned out the way she did. They denied her the opportunities. They held her back. If only she had parents like those of her friends, it would have all been better, maybe even perfect.

Or she could realize something else. Maybe her parents were not perfect, but they weren’t so bad either. In fact, is there anybody that is perfect? Now as an adult, she realizes they were only human, and humans make mistakes. They do what they believe is right, even when it is wrong. They do what feels good, even when it is harmful. They are not perfect but human, humans deserving of forgiveness. And so, as an adult she gives them what she can: forgiveness.

We can imagine perfection, but we cannot attain it. Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” A couple of centuries before that, Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Our heroine in this story has concluded she is no different than the rest of humanity. And like her parents before her, all she can do is forgive herself for her imperfections. Knowing herself and the extent of her ignorance, she is at the beginning of true wisdom.

The day the child realizes all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; and the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.

Alden Nowlan

The Canadian poet, Alden Nowlan, beautifully illustrates a way to wisdom. It starts with knowing who you are and then forgiving yourself for being that person. After all, we are all human and far from perfect. And though we can be incredibly strict with how we live our lives, demanding more from ourselves than we do from others, there is still room for forgiveness. We can forgive ourselves for our shortcomings and then try our best to overcome them. It is a process that if repeated can get us closer to the person we imagined ourselves to be. This is how we grow. This is how we become wise.


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More than Praying

I was maybe ten or eleven, when I first read the following passage from the Bible:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.

Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties.

Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number.

So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this.

So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice,

I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.

Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.”

I Kings 3:5-13

It was one of those first “aha” moments I remember. God told Solomon he could have anything he wanted. What did Solomon ask for? He did not ask for wealth, honor, or riches, but for understanding and wisdom. And God gave him wisdom, maybe more than anybody else. On top of the wisdom, He gave Solomon all the things he didn’t ask for, making him one of the wealthiest kings of history.

At that young age, I thought I found the key to conquering the world. From I Kings and Solomon’s writings in Proverbs, I had the secret formula for wisdom. All I had to do was ask for it. I got down on my knees and with all the might I could muster closed my eyes and prayed, “Oh Lord, I beg you, give me the wisdom of Solomon.” Okay, so I know it was no small request. But if you are going to go big, you might as well go all the way.

For ten years I continued that prayer. And for years, God laughed at me and said, “Foolish child, am I some desert genii here to obey your wishes?” I could imagine his laughter. It wasn’t scorn so much as it was amusement at my silliness. What did I expect to happen? Would I one day wake up to become the sage of this generation?

In time, those prayers were put to the side. I was getting older and other priorities grabbed my attention. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was reminded of those youthful prayers. After all, it was back in those days that the seeds were planted. And like well-preserved seeds, they began to come to life after a little nourishment.

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Are my prayers being answered by God? No doubt, this could be a debatable topic that both sides could argue. Maybe Solomon woke up one day with an extraordinary amount of wisdom, but that doesn’t usually happen to ordinary guys like me. Wisdom is available to the masses, but it doesn’t come without a price. You must work for it. It is earned, not given.

There is a step to wisdom. Over the years I read it over and over, but it took time for it to sink in. Consider these words from Proverbs:

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (2:6)

The wise store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin. (10:14)

Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge. (23:12)

Buy the truth and do not sell it —wisdom, instruction and insight as well. (23:23)

Over and over, Solomon repeats these words.

Knowledge and understanding. Plant the seeds of knowledge within your mind. Nourish it with understanding. Reap the fruits of wisdom. Prayer alone won’t do the trick. Wishing with all your might is not good enough. As James Allen said, our wishes and prayers are only answered when they harmonize with our thoughts and actions.