29 October 2011


Getting control of ourselves and our minds and recognizing that we can work towards controlling our emotional reactions to things can seem like dangerous ground.  There is the temptation to think that we can be like an island unto ourselves.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Just because we can control how we feel about someone's actions towards us doesn't mean that their actions are free from moral judgement.  When someone does a great wrong to us, we can choose to view their action from their viewpoint and understand why they made it.  Our recognition of the motivations behind their action isn't a justification, and our choice to not be stuck in a continual cycle of shock and outrage doesn't preclude us from taking action to correct the situation.

There's a huge gulf between our first, uncontrolled, emotional response to an action and a full and reasonable accounting of that action.  We can disagree without being angry, even if that seems impossible in most modern contexts.  We can disagree without being angry by recognizing that all of us are highly fallible and that our decisions are very rarely as rational and straightforward as we believe them to be.  We think of Stoicism as something that is stern and unyielding, but it involves much more shrugging of the shoulders than puffing out of the chest.  Humility is, as with most great paths, the road best taken in most cases.

So there is Hamlet.  He knows what has happened.  He recognizes that there has been a great injustice done, and he himself is the target of that injustice.  Should he fly into a rage and run off to kill Claudius?  No, of course not.  Should he shrug his shoulders, mutter a soft "c'est la vie", and give in to losing his birthright?  No, of course not.  Neither action is just.  The first is irrationally guided by anger, and the second is in no way just.

There's no easy answer for Hamlet, but any answer he finds should be guided by those two questions which are so important to figuring out how to live well: what can contribute to real happiness and what is in accordance with the way that world works.  Maybe that involves going off to kill Claudius, but it could also involve leaving the country to serve abroad, or going to live in a forest alone.   Happiness has never been an easy thing to figure out, especially if it's other people's happiness we're looking at.

It can be all too easy to think that what makes us happy would surely make our loved ones happy as well, but sometimes happiness has far different roots.  Tragedy, even one as deep as that faced by Hamlet, can lead us closer to understanding what real happiness might be.  Going off to live in the forest might be as good for Hamlet as leading an army to fight off his jerk uncle, but the answer would ultimately have to come from him, with advice guiding him, but never controlling him.

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