I Never Knew My Own Strength

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By Michael W. Raley

I never knew my own strength

Until I came across my greatest foe.

Not a person or cosmic entity,

But my own body.

I live with the chronic sickness and pain

While I strive to live a full life.

I do my best not to complain

And I don’t want to be a burden,

But there are times when it’s too much,

Yet I persevere.

The prayers have stopped

And God remains silent.

I guess it up to me

To gear up and face this enemy,

Which I will, no matter the obstacle,

No matter how I feel.

“Vivere est militare.”

To live is to fight

And fight on I will.

 

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Time Well Spent

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I have a music streaming app on my smartphone which keeps track of the time I spent the previous month listening to music. When I receive this notification, it gives me pause as I think about the amount of time I spent listening to the music I enjoy. What if our lives had an app that could keep track of all of our habits? What if this app could keep track of everything we do in life? This app could keep track of such things as:

-The amount of time we spend complaining about the current presidential administration.

-The amount of time we spend arguing with friends and strangers on social media.

-The amount of time we spend putting off important tasks.

-The amount of time we spend in anxiety, fear, or depression concerning the past, present, or future.

Believe me, I have my days when I’m not the most productive person. I know the struggles you face- you work a full-time job, there’s family obligations, bills to pay, the car broke down, you’re trying to get in shape, and you have to go to sleep at some point. You’re just as fatigued when you wake up as you were when you went to bed. Rest and lesiure are important, as I too spend some down time trying to relax and drown out the noise of the world.

Henry David Thoreau spent two years living in a cabin on Walden Pond in an effort to live a better, simpler life:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…”1

Walden was first published in 1854, I wonder what would Thoreau say about life in 2018? Thoreau also discussed the need to simplify our lives:

“Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”2

When it comes to how we spend our time, Thoreau echoes the sentiment of Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca, who lived 1800 years before. Seneca challenged the general notion that “Life is short.”

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Life is long enough and our alloted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone, under the pressure of the ultimate necessity, before we were aware it was going. So it is: the life we receive is not short,but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”3

One of the tenants of Stoicism I admire is the thought of living each day like it was your last. This doesn’t mean living in debauchery and unbridled hedonism, but giving careful thought to everything you do. We do not understand that we are given a certain amount of time to live, yet we plan as if we will live forever, a point Seneca makes so eloquently:

“It is because you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last.”4

The life of Jesus Christ overlaps that of Seneca, and Jesus in Luke 12:16-21 told the Parable of the Rich Fool. In this parable, there was a rich man who was satisfied with the fruits of his labors and decided to tear down his barns and build bigger barns for his crops. The rich man then decided to rest on his ambition and “eat,drink, and be merry.” However, the rich man was unaware that he was going to die that night, not getting the chance of basking in his accomplishments.

James also warns us about presumptive conduct: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’” (James 4:13-15, NKJV).

Thus, we must be mindful of how we spend this life, for it is the only one we get. Give consideration to all that you do and say, simplify, and focus your energy to what will build up yourself and others. You do not have time to dwell on toxic thoughts, relationships, and people. Don’t spent the next twenty,thirty, or forty years on trying to build for a future life, live the life you have now. God bless you.

1Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, Introduction and notes by Jonathan Levin. New York: Barnes & Noble (2003): 74.

2 Ibid, 75.

3 Moses Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. New York: W.W.Norton & Company (1958): 48.

4Ibid, 50-51.

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.

 

Managing Our Anger

Growing up, I was a fan of The Incredible Hulk TV show which starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. In every episode, David Banner (Bill Bixby) would warn somebody, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” However, the time would come when David Banner would reach the point of getting angry and his eyes would change color. The Hulk was going to show up on screen any minute. (As a side note, in the comics, movies, and cartoons, The Incredible Hulk’s alter ego is Bruce Banner. A network executive did not like the name Bruce, thus Bruce Banner became David Banner for the TV show). The Incredible Hulk is essentially a Dr. Jekyll/Mr.Hyde story, where one person has two distinct personalities. Dr. Banner does his best to control the monster inside of him, but he still morphs into The Hulk. The question becomes how well do you control the angry monster inside of you?

Anger, if not kept in check, can be a destructive force. Anger has been the cause of countless wars, acts of violence, broken homes, broken lives, and suffering. If you’ve ever lost your temper, it does not mean you’re a bad person, you’re human. Even the Lord Jesus Christ lost His temper when he overturned the money changer tables in the Temple.

I don’t like who I am when I get angry because I become a totally different person. I lose control and my thoughts race along with my blood pressure. The rational, collected side of me steps away and the reactive emotional side takes over. One of my personality flaws is that I don’t speak out at first and I choose to bottle up the anger. However, when the stress becomes too much, I erupt like a long dormant volcano and my hulking green monster emerges. My wife refers to these episodes as my “Three-to -six month meltdowns.” After these episodes, I am fine for a while.

The Bible does not say “don’t get angry,” it says “In your anger, do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, NIV). Anger is like a guest who long overstays their welcome in your home. Anger will eat away at you and could turn into bitterness, wrath, and may even make you vengeful towards another person, where you would want to cause them harm.

When you feel the tension rising up, take a step back and examine why you’re angry. Is this situation within your control? Did you just make a poor choice? Are you mad at something someone else did to you or a loved one? Is your anger a result of depression or anxiety? Is this a temporary or long-term situation? Please don’t act on impulse when faced with these situations, but consider that your reaction is perfectly within your control.

I am relying on my faith in Christ and study of Stoic philosophy to help guide me through the depression and anxiety, which are some of the main causes of my getting upset when unfavorable circumstances arise. If we can discover the triggers for our anger, we will be better equipped to deal with those situations.

Even in our technologically advanced modern age, I believe we can still rely on the wisdom of the ancients to guide us on how to manage our anger.

“Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, for anger rest in the bosom of fools.” (Ecclesiastes 7:9, NKJV).

“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32, NKJV).

“The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression.” (Proverbs 19:11, NKJV).

In this short video, the Stoic Philosopher Seneca’s viewpoint on anger is examined: Seneca on Anger.

Anger seems to be an expected emotion in our society. Anger is everywhere. In this age of social media, the “angry mob” mentality can quickly to take over when someone does or says something out of line. There is no doubt that people and situations will make us angry, but we don’t have to stay there. Who really wants to be angry all the time? I don’t believe that’s any way to live.

The biggest obstacle to overcoming our anger doesn’t lie within society, but in the space six inches between our ears: our minds. Emotions lie within our will and our will is within our control. Are you listening to or watching a program that causes you to get angry? Don’t listen to it or watch it. Is job-related stress getting to you? You can always change jobs or even careers. Is there someone who stresses you out? You can always change your reaction to that person. Thoughts rushing through your mind? Take the time to journal, relax, pray, meditate, exercise, or maybe enjoy some classical music. You can walk out of the prison of your mind any time you want. God bless you all.

 

 

 

Seek Happiness from Within

Happiness is an inside job. In order to find our happiness, we must shut the door on the clamor that is modern life and seek the peace within ourselves.

Your happiness is squarely on your shoulders. Our happiness is the result of our internal response to external circumstances. Yes, there will be horrible, soul-crushing, darkness which will at times, mask our landscape, but you do not have to stay there. The ancient Greeks had a word, Euthymia, to describe a pleasant, peaceful state of mind. The Stoics, Seneca in particular, preferred the word Tranquility.  The Bible speaks of the peace that transcends all understanding.

In order to bring change to our world, we must do the work ourselves. Don’t look to people, governments, or stuff to make you happy or change your circumstances. Start with you. Seek God’s forgiveness, then make peace with yourself. You can’t change yesterday’s decisions and you can’t worry about tomorrow’s choices. It’s only you and this moment.

Epictetus said, “Regardless of what is going on around you, make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it occurs.”

God has equipped all of us, albeit with different talents and skills, but we are all equipped nonetheless. Take the tools you have and build the life you want.

Seneca, Providence, and Adversity

“Without an antagonist prowess fades away. Its true proportions and capacities come to light only when action proves its endurance. You must know that good men should behave similarly; they must not shrink from hardship and difficulty or complain of fate; they should take whatever befalls in good part and turn it to advantage. The thing that matters is not what you bear but how you bear it.”- Lucius Seneca, “On Providence.”[1]

 

I recently came across this quote and it gave me pause.  The obstacles and challenges of this life seem to converge and overwhelm us at every opportunity. If you have not been challenged in a while, you do not have to go looking for it, it will find you. We should not live in fear of what comes next, but we must draw on the reserve in our spirits and be ready to apply what we have learned from previous tests.

Every great hero needs a great adversary. Could you imagine Batman without The Joker? Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? Sherlock Holmes without Professor Moriarty? Think of the countless great athletes who managed to step up their game when faced with an equally talented opponent. All of the training, prayer, study, sleepless nights, thinking, crying, frustration, pain, grief, loss, and hurt have come down to this: it is time to prove it to yourself. You cannot worry about what others will think, you must have the confidence in your God-given abilities. God leads us in and shows us the way.

“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13, NIV).

Seneca goes further to describe God’s role in our overcoming adversity:

“God’s attitude to good men is a father’s; his love for them is a manly love. ‘Let them be harassed by toil and sorrow and loss,’ says he, ‘that they may acquire true strength.’”[2]

On the surface, that sounds kind of harsh, but God has His reasons, He wants you to be strengthened and He is working on you to become a battle hardened soldier.

“Pampered bodies grow sluggish through sloth; not work but movement and their own weight exhausts them. Prosperity unbruised cannot endure a single blow, but a man who has been at constant feud with misfortunes acquires a skin calloused by suffering; he yields to no evil and even if he stumbles carries the fight on upon his knee.”[3]

We may never get an explanation in this life as to why something happened. Great thinkers, theologians, and philosophers may never answer the question of “Why do we suffer?” to satisfy everyone. But know, like Esther, you “were born for such a time as this.” I will conclude with a few more quotes from Seneca’s essay, “On Providence.”

“Prosperity can come to the vulgar and to ordinary talents, but to triumph over the disasters and terrors of mortal life is the privilege of the great man.”[4]

“Cruelty presses hardest on the inexperienced; the tender neck chafes at the yoke.”[5]

“The demonstration of courage can never be gentle. Fortune scourges and rends us: we must endure it.”[6]

“No tree stands firm and sturdy if it is not buffeted by constant wind; the very stresses cause it to stiffen and fix its roots firmly. Trees that have grown in a sunny vale are fragile. It is therefore to the advantage of good men, and it enables them to live without fear, to be on terms of intimacy with danger and to bear with serenity a fortune that is ill only to him who bears it ill.”[7]

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

[1] Moses Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. New York: W.W. Norton & Company (1958): 30.

[2] Ibid, 30.

[3] Ibid, 30-31.

[4] Ibid, 36.

[5] Ibid, 37-38.

[6] Ibid, 39.

[7] Ibid, 40.