13 November 2011

Simple things are hard to do

"While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good."

This is perhaps the simplest of commands.That doesn't mean that it's easy though.  While you are alive, and while it is in your power, be good.  

The beauty of the Stoic path is the second clause in that sentence, "while it is in thy power".  Modern life all too often leaves us feeling powerless, but that's nothing new.  Humanity has been dealing with this powerlessness for as long as it has been around.  If nature abhors a vacuum, people abhor restrictions.  We have made it our business to become as powerful as we can, to distance ourselves as much as possible from those things that could have power over us, regardless of whether it truly benefits us.  For most of history, the thing that has held us in thrall has been nature.  In the developed world we have largely left behind our sense of powerlessness as we stand before nature, even if we've largely had to retreat from nature to do it.  

This has left us at a critical remove from what has been par for the course for our preceding Homo's.  For most of us, the rain is an annoyance, not a godsend, and floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, droughts, and all of nature's other forms of power are distant.  We eat tomatoes in December, our homes stay a nice steady temperature year round, and the sane among us don't often come too near animals that could devour us.  We might have a degree of power over nature that would have been unimaginable even a hundred years ago, but our minds are little different, and having power over oneself is as difficult as ever.  

If you'd like to see a future Stoic in the making, look at the older kid in this video:

To be able to live a good life, and to be good to others, a sense of power over your own tangle of emotions, reactions, and impulses is necessary.  That's some serious self-control.  If someone told me, right now, today, that they had eaten all my candy, I'd probably not react as well as that little guy.  Compare him to this dude:

These two kids provide us with a good example of the most difficult part of being good- being good to others who aren't very good themselves.  Let's skip away from the moral ramifications of lying to your kids, and move to simpler prey. There are people out there who make our lives much easier because of their basic decency, and there are others who make not getting arrested a feat of strength. There are still others who go out of their way to show us that they hate our very being, though our number of interactions with those folks goes down the further away you get from high school and hierarchical workplaces.  What would Marcus Aurelius say in that type of situation?  Here's his plain English response:

"Suppose there's a person who despises you.  Let him deal with that himself.  You yourself should deal with not doing or saying things that are worthy of being despised.  What if he hates you?  Again, let him deal with hate, while you yourself show kindness towards all.  Be ready to show him his mistake, not reproachfully, and not for your own ego, but honestly."  Meditations, Book Eleven

There are some simple truths there, and all too often we try to take the simple facts of reality and equivocate them away.  We shape our reality through our thoughts and words, and those around us often willingly enable us in distorting that reality to comfort ourselves.  We're often wrong, we're very rarely the best, and we do things that deserve reproach as often as praise.  We are usually looking for justifications for our own actions and protection for our own egos rather than for an honest appraisal of what we've done.  

Life's difficult enough as it is, and we know that we should basically be good to each other.  At the very least we should try not to be directly harmful to others, but before we do either we have to get our own selves under control.  Being good is nearly impossible without being aware.

But what does being good actually entail....

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