Seneca, Solomon, and the Happy Life

Lucius Seneca and King Solomon were two men who lived centuries apart, in two different parts of the world-Solomon in ancient Israel, Seneca in First Century Rome. Solomon was King of Israel and Seneca is considered to be one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy, along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Though over a thousand years of time separated Solomon and Seneca, both men posed to themselves the question,  What makes a happy life?

Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone deserves a chance to be happy. However, defining happiness is as diverse an answer as there are people on the planet. Some people define happiness with such things as love, possessions, a successful career, good health, faith, or family. Just as happiness means different things to different people, it meant different things to Solomon and Seneca.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is attributed to Solomon, (though it could have been written at a later date) and details Solomon’s pursuit of happiness. Solomon denied himself no pleasures as he literally had it all- wisdom, knowledge, political power, gold, silver, property, servants, singers, a harem of women, all of the wine he could drink- everything one might have at their disposal if you were the king or queen. Despite all of this, Solomon wasn’t happy, as he called his pursuits “meaningless,” “vanity,” and “chasing after the wind.”

Seneca, like the other Stoics, did not believe that “the externals,” i.e. fame, fortune, good health, reputation, are not what makes us happy.

“…the happy life depends solely on our reason being perfect. Only perfect reason keeps the soul from being submissive and stands firm against Fortune; it assures self-sufficiency in whatever situation. It is the one good which can never be impinged upon. A man is happy, I maintain, when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained by a bolster is liable to fall. If this is not so, then many factors outside ourselves will begin to have power over us.”1

If only Seneca was around at the time of Solomon! Solomon searched for happiness in external things- the money, the power, the women, that he lost sight of what was important and his heart was turned away from God. Solomon allowed his spiritual life to be compromised as he worshiped the foreign gods of his many, many, wives.

Please don’t misunderstand, I am not shunning material possessions, we must be careful not to allow the possessions to own us. What we have- our families, our homes, our money- can be taken away in an instant through death, disaster, bad investments, job loss, sickness, and a myriad of other circumstances which may beyond our control.

Ecclesiastes reads like Solomon is telling his story from the perspective of old age, essentially saying, “I’ve had it all, I knew it all, I did it all, and it didn’t make me happy.” Solomon became shortsighted because of his pursuits of pleasure, to which Seneca states:

“…Pleasure actually unstrings the soul and blunts all its force.” (pg 241).

“But it is our vices that reduce us to despair, for the junior partner in reason is of lower rank, too unstable for surveillance over choice wares, with judgment still unsteady and unsure.” (pg 245).

Solomon later came to realize that no matter if you were rich or poor, wise or foolish, the same fate would overtake everyone, the same as the animals: death, thus we must follow God and enjoy the life we’ve been given. In the following verses, Solomon echoes a lot of Stoic ideals concerning the pursuit of the happy life:

“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them-for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil- this is the gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, NIV).

Seneca teaches us that the happy life is also determined by our reason and sound judgment:

“What is the happy life? Self-sufficiency and abiding tranquility. This is the gift of greatness of soul, the gift of constancy which perseveres in a course judged right. How can these attitudes be attained? By surveying truth in its entirety, by safeguarding in every action order, measure, decorum, a will that is without malice and benign, focused undeviatingly upon reason, at once amiable and admirable.” (Pgs 239-240).

Happiness and contentment come from within, thus we cannot passively expect, possessions, people, or even God to make us happy. Think of time that you wanted a certain gift and received it for  Christmas or birthday. How did you feel about the gift a few days, weeks, or months later? Don’t wish away your life for the things you don’t have, but rejoice over what you currently have. Don’t let someday or the promises of heaven and the afterlife to dull your senses about living life in the hear and now. God has given you everything you have, enjoy it. Exercise good reason and judgment, so that you will be the same person, despite your current circumstances. God bless you.

1Moses Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. New York: W.W. Norton & Company (1958): 239.

 

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Book Review- Meditations

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Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) is considered to be both one of the last great emperors of Rome and along with Seneca and Epictetus, one of the pillars of Roman Stoicism. Aurelius’ book Meditations serves as a great insight into the mind of Aurelius and provides a framework of Stoic philosophy. However, Meditations is not a book written for the public, but was Marcus Aurelius’ personal journal, written on the war front and during his quiet time at the palace.

Book One of Meditations details the list of people who have influenced Aurelius on his life’s journey and what he received from each of them. For example: “From my grandfather Verus: decency and a mild temper. From what they say and I remember of my natural father: integrity and manliness. From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrong doing and even the thought of it; also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich.”1

Aurelius’ note on Appolonius really embodies Stoic aspects: “…to be always the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness…”2

Stoicism as a philosphy is about focusing on improving our inner character, controlling the things within our control (thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions) and not worrying about what’s not in our control (our reputation, whether or not we’ll be famous, the weather, to give a few examples). Aurelius is what we could call a reluctant politician, but he recognized that we cannot control how people act, we can only control our response to them. Book two starts off with this applicable nugget of wisdom:

“Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling,ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own- not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong.”3

Other major themes throughout Meditations:

*Live each day as if it was your last, not with reckless abandonment, but careful thought given to your ways andwords, doing all with excellence.

*Look for the beauty in everything.

*Minding our own business,working on improving ourselves, not worrying about what others are doing or being judgmental.

*Being adaptable to whatever circumstances come our way.

*No matter how long we live, the same fate, death, awaits us all, as it did the generations before us and the generations after us.

*Manage our perceptions, thereby, we manage our judgments of events.

*What happens to you as an individual affects the whole of humanity.

The Stoics have often been characterized as being emotionless, which is far from the truth. The Stoics were people of great inner reflection and who were able to manage their emotions, thereby keeping their perspective of circumstances. As Aurelius wrote:

“Reflect often on the speed with which all things in being, or coming into being,are carried past and swept away. Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. Reflect too on the yawning gulf of past and future time, in which all things vanish. So in all this it must be folly for anyone to be puffed with ambition, racked in struggle, or indignant at his lot-as if this was anything lasting likely to trouble him for long.”4

Where do we fit into this scheme?

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny-what fraction of that are you?”5

Stoicism began to decline after Aurelius’ death, which coincided with the rise of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Stoicism, however is making a comeback of sorts, as there are business leaders, athletes, and everyday people who are putting its principles to practice. I also find that Stoicism is compatible with my Christian faith, as some of Aurelius’ passage echo themes found in Solomon’s Ecclesiastes and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

You don’t need to have any extensive background in philosophy or religion to read Meditations, as Aurelius brings forth his points that are still relevant almost 2,000 years later. What if we were to focus our limited time on improving ourselves and not pointing the finger or bickering with each other? What if we could see that others are like us, they too are on their own journey, trying to find their place in the world? I will leave you with the perspective of Aurelius- we are all in this together, let’s make the best of it.

“All things are meshed together, and a sacred bond unites them.Hardly a single thing is alien to the rest: ordered together in their places they together make up the one order of the universe. There is one universe out of all things, one God pervading all things, one substance, one law, one common reason in all intelligent beings, and one truth- if indeed there is also one perfection of all cognate beings sharing in the same reason.”6

1Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translation and notes by Martin Hammond. London: Penguin Books (2006): 3.

2Ibid, 4.

3Ibid, 10.

4Ibid, 42.

5Ibid, 42.

6Ibid, 59.

Living Life without Expectation

What if we were to live life without expectation? I’m not talking about a hopeless life, where we are broken and faithless, but a life where we can be at peace no matter the circumstances.

Think about this for a moment: how many times have the events of your life matched the expectations in your mind?  These misplaced expectations lead to disappointment, which can lead to discouragement, which can develop into depression, which can make us feel hopeless and purposeless. We shut out God, our loved ones, and our friends because they let us down. We loathe our jobs because the grass wasn’t as green as was promised. We are financially strapped because we decided to take a leap of faith on a new career, a bigger house, that car we always wanted, etc.

If you feel this way or spent part of your life feeling this way, it’s okay. Just take a few deep breaths. Don’t condemn yourself, but find it in your heart to forgive yourself. Ask God to forgive you. Forgive others who hurt you. You made the best choice you could at the time with the information you had. That’s life. We have to make decisions sometimes without knowing what the results will be.

What would be a good example of living life with expectation? Let’s say you have a friend who has fallen on hard times and asks you for $100 to buy groceries for his family. Maybe your friend says he’ll pay you back or you expect the money back as soon as possible. Time goes by and your friend has not given you the money. You ask about it, the friend can’t pay it back now. More time passes and you begin to resent your friend over the money. A possible lifelong friendship could be ended over $100 all because of misplaced expectations. How could this situation be handled without expectations? Your friend, who has fallen on hard times, ask you for $100 to help buy groceries for his family. You have the money and give it to your friend. Your friend offers to pay back the money, but you say, “Don’t worry about it, consider it a gift.” This changes the dynamic of the situation because you have truly been generous with no stipulations. You also have the satisfaction that your friend’s family will have food in their home.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about how we are to give to others without expecting anything in return:

“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:31-36, NIV).

Speaking strictly from the Christian perspective, The Bible spends a lot of verses describing how God has blessed us spiritually in Christ and the ways He will bless us when we are obedient to Him. We must tread very lightly when we read and teach these verses, because we can open up ourselves and others to disillusionment and disappointment, which can lead people to becoming soured on God and the church. There must be a balance so that unmet sky high expectations will not send believers into a soul crushing abyss.

What happens when something doesn’t work out the way it was supposed to work out? What if there is no miracle? What if the financial windfall never comes? What if our or a loved one’s suffering is never eased despite a bevy of fervent, faith-filled prayers?

As Christians and people in general, we are too prideful to say,  “I don’t know.” When it comes to matters of faith, no one wants to say, “I don’t know.” So, in order to save face or relieve the pressure of having to give an answer for why God didn’t answer a prayer, we may say such things as, “It must not have been in God’s will, plan, or timing.” “God must have something better for you” “Maybe you just need more faith.” “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” I admit that I have been on both sides of this situation- as the one with the unanswered prayer and the finite being trying to explain why the infinite and sovereign God did what He did or didn’t do. It is not comforting to be in either situation.

Is it possible for us to live a life of faith without expectation? I believe so because faith by definition is unknowable. If we knew everything coming our way (a sense of expectation), we wouldn’t need faith.  Instead of worrying about what might happen, such as What if I get cancer? What if I lose my job? What if my spouse leaves me? what if we lived life as it came to us? What if we could have peace in the midst of the unknown? I will leave you with the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” (Enchiridion, 8).

Examining Our Foundations

For anything, whether it be a house, building, relationship, belief system, or a civilization, a solid and structurally sound foundation must be in place. If a foundation is broken or weak at any point, further stress and strain will create more damage in the future if the foundation is not fixed. If the foundation goes, then the entire building, relationship, belief system, or society is in danger of collapse.

Throughout the course of human history, our response to faulty foundations has been to simply build something new on top of the previous structure. One civilization falls, simply build another one.  The house falling apart? One option compared to costly repairs is to simply move. Instead of constantly rebuilding or moving, what if we were to exercise due diligence and from time to time examine the foundation before it becomes a problem?

I believe in the importance of having a firm set of beliefs. I believe it is important for everyone to have guiding principles and truths in their life, as these truths and principles will serve as a foundation in everything we do, say, and think.  However, life is about continuous growth, which can come via circumstances or exploring new information. Once we are presented with information, we have the choice to accept it or reject it. We must also understand the importance of self-examination concerning our beliefs. It is perfectly fine for a seven-year-old child to spend Christmas Eve eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. However, if that same child grows up to the age of fifty-seven expecting Santa Claus, then that would be an issue.

If we could travel back in time and listen to ourselves five, ten, twenty, maybe thirty years ago, we would probably ask our past selves, “What were you thinking? That’s not how any of this works.” From time to time, we must do a foundational audit of what we believe because what we believed as children or in our youth may not make much sense as an adult.

There is one great obstacle that holds us back from challenging our beliefs and rebuilding the foundations: fear. We fear change. We fear being wrong. We don’t like it when others challenge our core beliefs. When faced with an opposing viewpoint, we often retreat into our mental bunkers or we demonize the opposition as a threat to our way of life. This type of discourse is evident in politics and religion.  Why not simply listen to what someone else says?  Maybe we will learn something new, maybe it will affirm or enhance what we believe. Why not agree to disagree? If we are basing our lives on certain beliefs, don’t you want to be sure you have the right foundation? Think for yourself. Challenge yourself. Stretch yourself beyond the comfort zone. Don’t simply go along with the crowd, but have the courage to ask, Where are we going and Why? 

 

 

Confidence Outside the Comfort Zone

“You have to get out of your comfort zone” is an expression we’ve heard from motivational speakers, pastors, business leaders, celebrities, and probably the people in our lives. In order to live the life we’re supposed to live, conventional wisdom says, we must break free of the monotony and hum-drum of simply existing and push ourselves beyond what we know. Easier said than done. The moment we dare stick a toe outside of the comfort zone, we can be greeted by fear, anxiety, depression, others telling us to turn back, failure, frustration, among other issues. It appears that our trip outside of the comfort zone has turned into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

I don’t tell these stories to be boastful or proud, I just want to help others in a similar situation. Three years ago I created this blog, which was a step outside of the comfort zone. I’ve always wanted to write but I was too shy to share my writing outside of my inner circle. I thought, “Do I have anything to say?” “What would I say?” “Would anyone read it?”

One Saturday morning in October 2014, I on a lark, did a search for free blogs and came across WordPress. I followed the setup process and published my first blog, which was on “The Sacrifice of Praise.” Three years and as of this post, 156 articles later, I am still humbled by every view, every follower, everyone who has commented, thank you all so much for helping me find my voice as a writer.

Nine-and-a-half months ago I took another journey, this one farther out of the comfort zone than I’ve ever been. I found myself laid off at the end of 2015 and was unemployed for three months. I took a job which paid a lot less money, but I was back to work. I later left that job for another one, which eventually paid more money.  I was thankful for the work, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I found myself nearing forty in a mid-career and a seemingly in the start of a mid-life crisis. I was also dealing with the compounded stress of my health, my wife’s health, a family tragedy, and crisis of faith. Perfect time to step out of the comfort zone, right? So after months of going back and forth, I decided to go back to school- this time for Information Technology, something for which I had no previous background.

I wish I could say it had a Hollywood ending, but it didn’t. Going to school and working six days a week presented a monumental struggle. There were times that I wanted to quit both school and the job. Living as a hermit in the woods appealed to me. I stuck with it and was able to earn several certifications and I have the opportunity to go back and retest for the ones I missed.

As of posting this, I graduated yesterday, and breathed a sigh of relief. As I received my certificate, I shook hands with school administrators and instructors. I don’t think that I will forget the words of my instructor, who said, “Way to keep working.”  I am now an Information Technology Systems Administrator. By God’s grace and the support of family and friends, I completed my journey out of the comfort zone, which involved a lot of  hard work and sacrifice, but I am thankful for the journey. I believe the most important thing I have gained during these last nine-and-a-half months is self-confidence. Self-confidence should not be confused with arrogance or pride, for we must have confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we can sail into the contrary winds. There’s always the possibility of failure, but we can’t let that stop us. We must persist. God has gifted everyone with a toolbox of talents, but we must use the tools. I proved to myself that I am able to take on new challenges and not allow age or circumstances affect my goal.

If we are going to step out of the comfort zone, we must do the work and put in the time, because we can’t be passive-minded and hope for things to work out. There will be resistance, but you must keep going forward. There will be bumps and bruises, there may even be a scar or two, but the journey will be worth it. No one can take it away from you. No one will be able to say that you couldn’t do it. God bless you all.

Let’s Hold Off the Apocalypse

Let’s hold off the apocalypse for one more day.

If you’re anything like me,

There’s so much beauty left to see

And so many words left to say.

Even if someone would set a date,

More than likely the end would be late.

So why spend today’s precious moments

Worrying about tomorrow’s possible torments?

Why spend your day in fear and speculation

When you can now experience love and jubilation?

We don’t know what life holds in store,

Thus we must embrace everyone and everything that much more.

No matter what tomorrow brings,

Let us enjoy the beauty of life,

Listen to the song the free bird sings

And put aside the petty bickering and strife.

Lift up your head, Lift up your voice,

And find something for which you can rejoice.

 

Peace through Music

 

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. - Victor Hugo

There is something about music that resonates in the collective soul of humanity. For millennia, music has been used to sing praises to God, tell stories of epic victories, songs of nature, songs of love, to bring awareness of social causes, or just simply for entertainment purposes. Just as there are billions of people on the planet, not everyone will agree on the same music, as it is a fine-tuned individual preference based on what sounds pleasant to the ears.

In recent months, I have rediscovered my love for classical music. The music has brought healing to my heart and spirit. Throughout the course of my life, I have had to fight constant battles against depression and anxiety. There would be times that I would feel so overwhelmed by the everyday events of life, that I would get anxious and the tension would rise. It would feel as if a panic attack was coming.  I would put on my earbuds and close my eyes and I would allow the classical or instrumental praise music to help me refocus on what I had to do. There is just a timeless, serene quality to a symphony or sonata that can bring such joy to the heart and mind. (Along with music, we can tap into the power of prayer and even breathing exercises, but I will focus on music).

The Bible states Saul was the first king of Israel. However, due to Saul’s continuous disobedience, God rejected Saul and anointed David as the next king. Maybe it was the weight of God’s rejection or the realization of his personal failings, Saul became a tortured man.

“Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” (1 Samuel 16:14, NIV).

Briefly, I believe the above verse means that God had removed His protection, grace and anointing from Saul and Saul was left to deal with the fallout of his sins. God had allowed Saul to reap what he had sown.

Saul’s attendants knew what was going on with him and they sought permission to find a harp player, who could bring comfort to Saul. The harp player ended up being David, who earlier in 1 Samuel 16, unbeknownst to Saul, anointed the next king of Israel.

“And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” (1 Samuel 16:23, KJV).

David’s harp playing would bring temporary healing to Saul’s spirit, but this verse also serves as a pivot point between Saul’s steady decline and David’s meteoric rise. Through music, David was able to bring praise to God and bring healing to the pain of others, much like how a hymn or worship song in church can touch a broken heart. David’s musical ability not only gave him audience with the king, but his praises of God would give him strength for the next challenge. In 1 Samuel 17, we come across the famous story of David defeating Goliath. David praised God before he went into battle. There are other instances in The Bible where music and praise won the battle.

*Jehoshaphat sent out the choir before he sent the soldiers to fight three invading armies. (2 Chronicles 20).

*When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people sang “Hosanna!” before Jesus went into the temple and confronted the corruption.

*Paul and Silas were praising God at midnight while chained up in the jail at Philippi before they were miraculously freed.

Music is one of the ways we are to build up our spirits.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16, KJV).

You may not be able to read music or play an instrument, but there is a song in you. Just as David acknowledged God’s deliverance from the bear and the lion before facing the giant, you too have a song of deliverance. Allow the music to dwell in you and give you strength to rebuild your spirit. God bless you.