The Wall

photography of brickwall
Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

By Michael W. Raley

I stare at the wall and wonder,

“What does it all mean?”

Have I spent my time on the right causes

Or have I just blindly followed the crowd?

I moved forward to only get knocked back down;

I wonder how many more times I can get back up.

What I’ve known no longer works

And my journey begins anew.

I’m older, wiser, and more discerning;

Armed with equal amounts of skepticism and reason.

At this point, there is no turning back,

There will be no retreat, no surrender.

I will get around this wall,

Whether it be over, under, around, or through,

I’m coming, on my way to a breakthrough.

 

 

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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.

Book Review: The Obstacle is the Way

In what I hope will be an ongoing series, I will be reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

All of us face obstacles in one form or another. Often these obstacles seem to be overwhelming, insurmountable, formidable, and we surrender before we even begin to fight.  However, what if we viewed the obstacle in front of us not as a source of despair, but as an opportunity? In other words, what if we took a perceived disadvantage and used it to advance ourselves? Ryan Holiday explores this thought process in his book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity into Advantage.

Holiday masterfully combines the principles of Stoic philosophy with profiles of historical and contemporary figures such as John D. Rockefeller, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Margaret Thatcher, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama and Nick Saban to name a handful of people who saw opportunity and seized it when others retracted in fear.

Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations serves as the inspiration for the book. Holiday quotes Aurelius: “Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”[1]

Holiday expands on these principles throughout the book, but he summarizes what we need to do in order to overcome our obstacles:

“Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps. It begins with how we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them to opportunities; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty. It’s three interdependent, interconnected, and fluidly contingent disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will.[2]

Throughout the book, Holiday employs such Stoic principles as negative visualization, which is being able to examine the worst case scenario in any given situation. Negative visualization is not fear or pessimism, but serves as a way for us to adapt and anticipate obstacles that may come our way. Holiday also employs the Stoic mindset of separating what is in our control and what is not in our control. For example, our thoughts, emotions, decisions, attitudes, will, and reactions to events are perfectly within our control. What is not in our control? The Stoics, particularly Epictetus, called these events “externals,” such as what happen to us, our reputation, our property, the economy, the weather, and our overall health. The Stoics also believed that no matter what you do, be the best at it. We must also be mindful of the present moment. There is a process we must follow in order to be successful. If we remain persistent and work at the obstacle, we will find success.

My favorite story in the book is about Thomas Edison. Holiday relays a story that Thomas Edison received word that his factory was on fire. Edison came to the factory and viewed the fire, in which the various chemicals in the building were reacting to the fire, and shot yellow and green flames high into the sky. What was Edison’s reaction to the fire? Did he say, I’m Finished? Did he say, I’m sixty-seven years old and I’m too old to start over? Did Edison rant and rave, scream and have himself a “good old fit?” The story goes that Edison sought and found his son in the massive crowd of onlookers and instructed him to, “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” Edison added, “Don’t worry. It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”[3] Of course, as prolific of an inventor as Edison was, there wasn’t simply “rubbish” alone that was lost in the fire. Within weeks, the factory was running a partial shift and within a month the factory was back to operating two shifts. Also, Edison and his investors lost quite a bit of money due to the fire, but he was still able to recover and earned back ten times the loss in revenue. What separated Edison’s mindset? Edison simply perceived obstacles not as failures and setbacks, but as discovering the ways something would not work.

Holiday adds, “To do great things, we need to be able to endure tragedy and setbacks. We’ve got to love what we do and all that it entails, good and bad. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens.”[4]

In his book, Holiday admits that taking this approach to adversity is a difficult process, but it can be done with enough hard work and persistence. I highly recommend The Obstacle is the Way to anyone no matter the stage of life. There is great wisdom and perspective that can be gained from this book.

[1] Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity into Advantage. London: Profile Books LTD, 2014: XIV.

[2] Ibid: 9.

[3] Ibid: 150-151.

[4] Ibid: 151.