Embrace and Adapt to the Circumstances

“Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.”1 -Epictetus

I don’t deserve this. I try to do everything right. I show up and do my job. I’m a dedicated spouse and an even more dedicated parent. Why am I suffering? Why is God silent? Why is He allowing this to happen?

Does that train of thought sound familiar? I have gone through that script so many times, I should’ve been nominated for a major acting award.

(Before I go on, I want to make a disclaimer: No one, under any circumstances deserves to be abused, mistreated, harassed, or tormented by anyone else. If you find yourself in that situation, please seek help).

Deserve. A word which signifies an entitlement or something that is owed to us. We often think of deserve as a reward for doing the right thing, for not acting like everyone else around us. Deserve means we should be spared from a life of pain and suffering. However, all of us, deep inside know that is not the case.

Life is unfair. Legal or social justice does not always prevail. A husband or wife can decide they want out after decades of marriage. You can be fired or laid off from that job for which you earned while climbing the corporate ladder. A retirement fund or savings account can be wiped out with one swift downturn in the market or a major illness. You may have reached middle aged or older only to find yourself starting over. Life is unfair.

To paraphrase the above Epictetus quote: It’s not about what we deserve, it’s about what we get. We must manage our expectations of love, marriage, career, health, and everything else we deal with in this life.

I never thought my health and career would take a turn for the worse at thirty-eight. I never conceived that I would be divorced three years later. I didn’t expect to start over in a one bedroom apartment. Life will take you places you don’t want to go. Life will drag you kicking and screaming if it must. However, it’s not all bad and you are tougher than you think you are.

I agree with Epictetus that we must temper our expectations as we go through life. I’m not saying to prepare for catastrophic failure, but we must train ourselves to adapt to changing circumstances. Jesus said that in this world, we will have tribulation, but we can take solace in knowing He has overcome the world. The Buddha said existence is suffering. Yoda said that we must let go of everything we fear to lose. Basically, bad times are going to come, we must find peace and contentment in the worst of circumstances. To use a sports analogy, if our game plan is not working, we must be able to make adjustments on the fly. Embrace where you are and God bless you.

1Epictetus The Art of Living: A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1995): 7.

Don’t Feed the Trolls

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*https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/heres-happens-confront-internet-troll-face-face/*

First impressions are critical in life and in business.

A good or bad first impression can decide whether or not that date will turn into a relationship, you get the job, join a particular church, or vote for a certain political candidate.

All of us are guilty from time to time of making snap judgments about people and situations. We judge someone’s character just by looking at them. We tune out a song or speech after the first verses or sentences. We don’t like something new because it’s not as good as the original. We overuse such phrases as “It’s the best/worst ever.” After making the determination about someone or something’s value, we look for confirmation bias:

“I got stuck in traffic this morning. I knew it was going to be a bad day.”

After the news is announced that a particular actor was cast in a movie yet to go into production and be released, “That’s going to be terrible. Worst casting choice ever!”

“This country is going to hell in a hand basket. I miss the good ol’ days.”

What if I told you that you can manage your impressions and starve your inner troll at the same time? You can. Everyone of us has the ability to control our responses to any situation. As individuals, we have the right to think for ourselves, thus we can move away from doctrine, party, and the same talking points which will never convert your opponent anyway.

I am a firm believer that life is fraught with difficulties and we should anticipate problems, but we should not live in fear of them. What if we were to take a few moments to step aside and assess the situation? You received a bad diagnosis from the doctor? You can always seek a second opinion. You can examine your life and make changes concerning your health. In the case of a terminal issue, you can even make the most of the time you have left.

In Epictetus’ The Art of Living, the Stoic philosopher discusses how our view of situations, including death, can be more damaging than the situation itself:

“Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. Therefore even death is no big deal in and of itself. It is our notion of death, our idea that it is terrible, that terrifies us. There are so many different ways to think about death. Scrutinize your notions about death- and everything else. Are they really true? Are they doing you any good? Don’t dread death or pain; dread the fear of death or pain. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” (italics mine).*

When the alarm goes off to signal a new day, don’t sigh or allow yourself to be filled with dread, because you’ve been given a second chance. Take the time to talk to the person you dismissed and maybe you’ll find some common ground or become friends. In order to manage our impressions, we must be fluid and adaptable to whatever comes our way. Don’t expect to have the same beliefs at forty that you did at twenty. As we experience more of life, the more knowledge and wisdom we attain in order to improve our lives and the lives of those around us. We must also realize that life is not all bad and it’s not all good, as there will be difficulty. Change your perception of the situation and you will chance your response to said situation. And please, stop feeding the trolls. God bless.

*Epictetus, The Art of Living, interpreted by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1995): 10.

The Power of Acceptance

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Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” – William James1

It is what it is,” is a popular American saying, which means “accept it because there’s nothing you can do about it.” While in the moment the expression sounds like a cop out of resignation, but within this cliché is a nugget of wisdom.
There is power in acceptance. Acceptance helps you come to terms with what happens in life, no matter if it is death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, or our own looming mortality. Acceptance allows us to grow. For example, I am perfectly fine with the man I am at forty-one and I do not grieve about not being the man I was at twenty-one. I have come to embrace who I am and what I have been through in this life. However, this does not mean that I have liked everything that has happened,but I have used these building blocks of character to form the foundation of who I am today.
Acceptance can also help bring us peace of mind and process life’s events, as my favorite philosopher, Epictetus, put it succinctly: “Don’t demand or expect that events happen as you would wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen. That way peace is possible.”2
In fact, Epictetus put down a good foundation for us to follow concerning the power of acceptance.

Manage your expectations

Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.”3

Be weary of attachments

Open your eyes: Seeing things for what they really are, thereby sparing yourself the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation. Think about what delights you- the tools on which you depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them.”4

Attitude goes a long way

When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.”5

Manage your perceptions and judgments

What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Stop scaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are! Things and people are not what we wish them to be nor what they seem to be. They are what they are.”6

Life will never be perfect and as Epictetus pointed out, will turn out according to our expectations. One of the most important lessons I have learned is to be happy with who I am. Don’t waste your time trying to make everyone happy, because you won’t. You are the one who lives this life with your mind, your perceptions, your experiences, your genetic makeup, and the consequences of your choices.Therefore, embrace this life because it is the only life we get. God bless you.

2Epictetus, The Art of Living, A new interpretation by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1994): 15.

3Ibid, 7.

4Ibid, 7.

5Ibid, 7.

6Ibid, 7-8.

Enduring Hardships with Strength

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https://motivationgrid.com/11-powerful-bruce-lee-quotes-need-know/

A common literary device rooted in human existence is the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey has been part of mythology, fairy tales, epic poems, plays, legends, even to our modern day equivalent of novels and movies. All of these stories follow an similar three act structure. Act 1-Introduce the hero. Act 2- Put the hero in the most adverse/perilous situation. Act 3- the hero overcomes the situation, gets the girl, fulfills his destiny and lives happily ever after.

If our lives were only that simple.

If you have lived for any length of time, you know that “happily ever after” is often reserved for stories and not our lives. Life is a constant struggle, an ebb and flow, the highest of highs and the lowest of the heart-breaking lows.

Just when we think we have slayed the dragon, turned Darth Vader back to the light side of the Force, found our purpose, peace, or forgiveness from God, we find ourselves facing a new or recurring difficulty. After years of struggle and sacrifice to get a hold on the family finances, a lay off, a forced retirement, or sickness occurs. You believe that you have overcome depression and anxiety, only for circumstances to throw you back down to the pit. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, you do the best you can to be compliant with your care plan, only to suffer a flare-up or relapse. It feels as if all progress is lost.

We say and think such things as It isn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t fair. I’ve already been through this. Why is God allowing this?

One of the things we must change when we go through difficulties is our perceptions, or judgments. We work under the assumption that life is fair. Do good, get rewarded. Do bad, get punished. We expect instant blessing for ourselves because we all perceive ourselves as good, while we expect the perceived evildoers to receive instant punishment.  Unfortunately, the innocent suffer and the wicked are rewarded. We live in an imperfect world that doesn’t always make sense.

Neither Jesus nor anyone else said it was going to be easy. Jesus told us that we have to “take up our cross.” That cross at times will get heavy as we walk through this life.

Numerous times throughout his epistles, the Apostle Paul compares being a follower of Christ to the life of a soldier. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul encourages him to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ.” (2 Timothy 2:3). A casual reading of the New Testament and its emphasis on suffering and persecution certainly deals a resounding defeat to the claims of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” where God grants all of our desires like a genie freed from a lamp, and life will be free from difficulty. Faith doesn’t free you from difficult times, it helps you get through them by creating within you a resilience, a persistence, the strength to fight no matter the circumstances.

Difficulties serve as a mirror as to our true reflection, our true strength, and whether we get tough when the tough gets going.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus parallels the Apostle Paul’s statement to Timothy, but uses the analogy of being a wrestler.

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish. From my perspective, no one’s difficulties ever gave him a better test than yours, if you are prepared to make use of them the way a wrestler makes use of an opponent in peak condition.”1

In another discouse, Epictetus discusses an how to develop an acceptance of what God brings our way, a way to develop a sort of indifference to circumstances, or “going with the flow.”

“Lift up your head, like a person finally released from slavery. Dare to face God and say, ‘From now on, use me as you like. I am of one mind with you, I am your peer.’ Whatever you decide, I will not shrink from it. You may put me where you like, in any role regardless: officer or citizen, rich man or pauper, here or overseas. They are all just so many opportunities to justify your ways to man,by showing just how little circumstances amount to.”

Though it does seem counter-intuitive, the Apostle Paul, Epictetus, and Bruce Lee all concur- don’t  pray for difficult circumstances to flee, but ask God for the strength to get through the hard times. You will be a stronger and better person for it. God bless you all.

 

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, Translated and edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008):56.

2Ibid, 116.

 

The Virtue of Fortitude

Ever heard the expression “It builds character?” The “it” is what you are going through at the present moment. Though “It builds character” is often used flippantly and sarcastically, there is a golden nugget of truth we can mine from this statement.

Character is who you are- your mentality, values, beliefs, judgments, perceptions, which shape your responses to life and circumstances. Your character is fully within your control. Much like gold and silver, character will go through a refinement process.

“Take away the dross from the silver, and there comes out a vessel for the smith.” (Proverbs 25:4, NASB).

We are the silver. The dross is our impurities or imperfections. The vessel is what we will be and the smith is God. It is the smith who helps shape the silver into what it is supposed to be.

Our character can also evolve over time, much like how a writer may go through multiple rewrites before the novel, script, or comic book is complete. (For instance, in the original draft of Star Wars, Han Solo had green skin and gills).

The Stoics also believed in the importance of character. The Stoics believed that we can improve ourselves and that we should strive every day to be better people. In his discourse, “On Providence,” Epictetus discusses the proper perspective we should have in life.

“It is easy to praise providence for everything that happens in the world provided you have both the ability to see individual events in the context of the whole and a sense of gratitude. Without these, either you will not see the usefulness of what happens or, even supposing that you do see it, you will not be grateful for it.”1

Epictetus also links our character with fulfilling our purpose:

“And so for the beasts it is enough to eat, drink, sleep, breed and do whatever else it is that satisfies members of their kind. But for us who have been given the faculty of understanding, this is not enough. Unless we act appropriately, methodically, and in line with our nature and constitution, we will fall short of our proper purpose.”2

Since we are created by God for a purpose, we are called to acknowledge God:

“Man was brought into the world, however, to look upon God and his works- and not just look, but appreciate…Come to look upon and appreciate God’s works at least once before you die.”3

Take a moment to watch a sunrise or sunset. Look at the stars. Travel to the mountains. Look at the oceans. Take a breath and enjoy the moment.

One of the things that attracted me to read about Stoicism was the pragmatic and realistic nature of the philosophy. For the Stoics, it’s about the process. It’s acknowledging that bad things will happen and being prepared for them when they happen. Because you have lived through previous trials, you have built up a reserve of character, or what Epictetus referred to as “the virtue of fortitude.”

“Furthermore, you have inner strengths that enable you to bear up with difficulties of every kind. You have been given fortitude, courage, and patience. Why should I worry about what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it.”4

Epictetus goes on to mention about how we do not realize that we have the resources to conquer whatever we are facing. When circumstances do not go our way, we become bitter, complain and resent God, but God has provided a way out. You have the tools, you have to work with them. You might get greasy or hit your thumb, but keep working. What good is a toolbox of the best tools if they are never put to use?

God bless you all.

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings. Translated and Edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008): 16.

2Ibid, 17.

3Ibid, 18.

4Ibid, 18-19.

Name Your Price

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Unless you are independently wealthy, costs matter. In an age where numbers such as millions, billions, and even trillions are thrown around in political speech and casual conversations, many still have to account for every cent.

I believe Henry David Thoreau outlines the missing piece in the typical cost-benefit analysis: the amount of life and time we are going to exchange for our new home, the new job, or even an athletic goal. While it is a blessing and a noble effort to work hard and provide the best life you can, have you considered the long-term wear and tear on your body? If you are an athlete, will that small window of glory be worth it when the aches and pains remain after the cheering crowds have left? I believe in going after what you want in life, but we must factor in everything that comes along with it.

As Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher put it:

“If you wish to win at the Olympic Games, to prepare yourself properly you would have to follow a strict regimen that stretches you to the limits of your endurance. You would have to submit to demanding rules, follow a suitable diet, vigorously exercise at a regular time in both heat and cold, and give up drinking. You would have to follow the directions of your trainer as if he or she were your doctor.” 1

Epictetus also goes on to discuss the possibility of injury and losing the competition. Epictetus is encourage the reader to take a look at “the big picture” in order to test ourselves and our motives.

“By considering the big picture, you distinguish yourself from the mere dabbler, the person who plays at things as long as they feel comfortable or interesting. This is not noble. Think things through and fully commit!…Unless we fully give ourselves over to our endeavors, we are hollow, superficial people and we never develop our natural gifts…but consider first the real nature of your aspirations, and measure that against your capacities.”2

Jesus also encouraged us to consider the cost of discipleship in Luke 14:25-35. One example Jesus uses is someone who considers building a tower:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.'” (Luke 14:28-30, NIV).

Before we embark on anything in life, let us ask ourselves if we are truly willing to pay the real price to undertake it. God bless you all.

1Epictetus, The Art of Living, as interpreted by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (2006): 38.

2 Ibid, 39.

Book Review- The Art of Living

In a continuing series, I am reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

Epictetus’ book, The Art of Living, is an incredible philosophical book that gives the reader practical insight on how to live a virtuous life of inner peace, no matter the circumstances we face in life.

Epictetus (55AD-135AD) was a slave who took an interest in philosophy. Epictetus later gained his freedom and became a teacher of Stoicism. Epictetus today is regarded as one of the pillars of Roman Stoicism, along with Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Seneca. The essence of Stoicism is that it is not what happens to you, but how you respond that counts. The Stoics, especially Epictetus, write that we should focus solely on what is in our control and not worry about what is not in our control. You do not have to be a philosophy major to understand Epictetus, as he presents his philosophy in a practical and straightforward manner.

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”[1]

Epictetus then distinguishes what is and is not in our control:

“Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are direct subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.”[2]

“Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment.”[3]

Epictetus also stresses the importance of not getting caught up in other peoples’ business and stick with what is our concern because we will not be forced to do anything we do not want to do. Another aspect Epictetus emphasizes is the importance of managing our perceptions, or how we see and interpret events. It is important to gauge these perceptions by what is within our control and what is not in our control.

“From now own, practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: ‘You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.’ And then thoroughly consider the matter according to the principles just discussed, primarily: Does this appearance concern the things that are within my own control or those that are not? If it concerns anything outside your control, train yourself not to worry about it.”[4]

Other Brilliant Quotes from Epictetus

“Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.”[5]

“It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties will arise- for they are part of the divine order too- inner peace will still be possible.”[6]

“Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source.”[7]

“Nothing truly stops you. Nothing truly holds you back. For your own will is always within your control.”[8]

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.”[9]

“Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance.”[10]

The Art of Living has been a very influential book for me as I have journeyed through the last eighteen months of my life. I have learned and applied many aspects of Epictetus’ wisdom to my own life, which has enhanced my faith and navigated me through difficult choices. I have also found parallels in Scripture, which makes this book compatible for Christians as well.

If you truly want to live a happy life, it all starts with you. Be content in all circumstances and realize that everything happens for a reason. We may not know the reason, but we have been assigned this season of our lives. Make the most of it. Focus internally and do not worry about the externals. God bless you.

[1] Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. A New Intrepretation by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1995): 3.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid, 5.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Ibid, 12.

[8] Ibid, 16.

[9] Ibid, 17.

[10] Ibid, 24.