Don’t Feed the Trolls

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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.

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.

 

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.

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.