Thursday, April 16, 2009


If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention…

But I am paying attention, and I do get angry. All that does is raise my blood pressure and distract me from more important things which need my attention and which I may be able to affect.

The early stoics had the right idea. In his Enchiridion (Manual), the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others are not.” So much of what the news trumpets in its endless 24-hour loop is beyond my control; why do I let it bother me?

The stoics also point out that “All is as trite as it is transitory.” It makes no sense to ruin the present by fretting about those things which I cannot control and which are less than permanent. “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are” says the Tao Te Ching (#44). Last week’s class discussion wondered if the stoics were familiar with the teachings of Buddha and the Eastern philosophers who came before them. Even a cursory reading would seem to indicate they were indeed guided by the same influences. With the vast amount of reading I have been immersed in for the past three years, it still astounds me when I find common threads of philosophical thought streaming through the centuries and through civilizations. So many similarities! Forfeit control of those things over which we are powerless. Strive for non-attachment to things. Treat others as you would be treated. Live in the moment. Do not judge. No wonder it is called “wisdom literature.”

Unfortunately, that wisdom is too often lost in today’s me-first society. When the strident demands of the world collide, who wins? Or more likely, do we all lose? How much abuse do we, the peacemakers, take before defending ourselves? I’m not content with “the meek shall inherit the earth.” I don’t want the earth. And some mystical reward hereafter does not compensate for hell on that earth. Where do we find that balance the stoics stressed, the harmony which is the source of the good life?

In class, Bill proffered the concept of stoic activists. Keep your head while fighting back, in non-violent ways. “Turn off the juice, boy! Go man, go, But not like a yo-yo schoolboy. Just play it cool, boy.” (West Side Story, “Cool”) Gandhi, King, the Dalai Lama – good examples, all.

But that brings me back to my original problem. Even those things which do bother me – remembering the stoics warning that “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things” (Epictetus again) – and accepting that those things are out of my control, what and why do I fight? I have long argued that my actions have no effect on national or global issues. All I can change is myself. “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one,” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations) and hope that life by example will have a positive influence on those with whom I come in contact. That is the best I can hope for in this life.

Are you paying attention?

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