Archive for October, 2013

Epictetus titles this short piece ‘How to draw the correct consequences from the fact that God is the father of mankind.’  I find his ideas to be stimulating, stretching, affirming and challenging.  Perhaps, gentle reader, you will find in his ideas a ‘seed’ for you to plant or nurture.  Epictetus writes:

If we could completely subscribe, as we should, to the view that we are all primary creatures of God, and that God is father of both gods and men, I don’t believe that we would ever think mean  or lowly thoughts about ourselves. . .

. . .Two elements are combined in our creation, the body, which we have in common with the beasts; and reason and good judgment, which we share with the gods.  Most of us tend toward the former connection, miserable and mortal though it is, whereas only a few favor this holy and blessed alliance.

Since everyone will necessarily treat things in accordance with their beliefs about them, those few who think that they are born for fidelity, respect and confidence in their use of impressions entertain no mean or ignoble thoughts about themselves, while the majority does the opposite.  ‘What am I? A wretched mortal — a feeble piece of flesh.’  Feeble indeed — but you have something better than the flesh.  So why turn away from this and cling to that? 

Because of this connection, some of us sink to the level of wolves — faithless, vicious and treacherous.  Others turn into lions — wild, savage and uncivilized.  But most of us become like foxes, the sorriest of the lot.  For what else is a spiteful, malicious man except a fox, or something even lower and less dignified?

I am now asking myself: When do I affirm my god-likeness and affirm and use my reason and good judgment?  When do I choose to be a wolf, a lion or a fox?  Why do I choose the one over the other (i.e. reason and good judgment or being a wolf, a lion or a fox)?

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Robert K. Greenleaf asks: ‘When I speak, how will that improve on the silence?’  Hidden within this simple and powerful admonishment is a guideline and I call this ‘The First Rule.’  Before I speak, I wait.  I am reminded of the teaching story in the Gospel [it doesn’t matter your faith-tradition or no faith-tradition, the story is a great teaching story — my belief, of course].  Jesus had just finished teaching about compassion and all of a sudden a noisy crowd burst upon the scene.  The crowd parted and a woman was thrown at Jesus’ feet.  Someone in the crowd wanted to know what they should do — he had just spoken of compassion and the speaker also reminded Jesus of ‘justice.’  The law said that this woman, caught in adultery, should be stoned to death.  ‘Well, Jesus, what should we do — show compassion or demonstrate justice?’  ‘Well, teacher what is your response; what do you have to say?’  I can see myself ‘shooting from the lip’ and taking up the taunt and the challenge.  I can see others I know also react quickly; no real pause to reflect — ‘They want a response and by God (interesting choice of words here) I will give them a response!’  What Jesus did was masterful.  He waited.  He paused.  He thought it through.  He knelt down and wrote in the dirt [it might do each of us well if we carried some dirt with us so we could always pause and write in it before we spoke].  Then, and only then, did he speak.  His answer was perfect — he responded in such a way that the burden would be shifted to where it belonged, to those who brought the woman to be judged.  They were the ones that were judged — or rather, they were challenged to judge themselves.

The First Rule is to wait.  For me, it involves waiting to see what automatically emerges within my consciousness — and generally, this is not the most helpful response especially when I am faced with ‘life’ questions or ‘life’ situations or ‘life’ experiences.  I have learned that if I ‘wait’ then I will begin to discern potential responses that cut against my automatic responses.  What helps me is to make sure that I ‘see’ the other as a person.  I am remembering the African nation where when two people meet they say to one another ‘I see you.’  ‘I see YOU!’  Do I really, truly, see the person who is attempting to obtain a response from me?  Can I begin to feel what he or she might be feeling?  Can I, at minimum, ‘see’ that he or she has pain, joy, fear, courage, doubt and hope residing within them — just as I do.

Do I have the courage to pause, to wait, to discern more deeply?  Courage comes from the French root meaning ‘heart.’  Wonderful.  Do I have the ‘heart’ to wait, to pause, to discern more deeply?  Do I care enough about the other and about myself to pause?  Does the other deserve my ‘best’ — do I?

How can I know that my response connected?  I might learn so immediately.  I might never learn whether it did or not.  I might only learn years later.  I have had each of these experiences.

I must build my ‘waiting’ capacity (or is it also a discipline?) in order to honor ‘The First Rule’ — on my good days I can honor it with ease on my not-so-good days it is a challenge for me to do so and on my ‘really-not-good days’ I end up shooting from the lip.  How about you, gentle reader, what do you think about ‘The First Rule?’

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Our founders (i.e. of the United States of America) are referred to as our ‘founding fathers.’  Now we know from our careful reading of our history that there were a significant number of women who deeply influenced our founding; however, we have become accustomed to focusing on the men who gathered together and wrote policy.  What we know and at the same time don’t remember is that this gathering was composed of men who were quite diverse: in age, some were theists and some were not, they represented different interests (some agriculture, some fishing, some manufacturing, etc.), there was a diversity regarding ‘thinking styles’ and ‘problem-solving’ styles, there was diversity when it came to their education, there was diversity regarding where they lived — urban, country, region — and there was certainly a diversity when it came to their political thinking.  They also had some things in common — they were ‘white,’ male and free.  Although they all eventually supported seeking independence from England they certainly did not begin unified in this way and when it came time to adopt the Constitution some did not want to ratify it (the first States’ Rights folks — some wanted each state to be a country and others saw regional affiliations as the pathway; the Federalists won out, sort of).

Our founders also held one other united belief: ‘We the People. . .’   For the first time in history, a large nation, geographically if not yet in population, was going to be turned over to the people — not to a parliament, not to a king, not to a dictator and not to the armed forces.  ‘We’ would hold the power and we would elect those to whom we would delegate the power — and these folks would all be civilians.  The armed forces, for the first time at this scale, would be subject to civilian control and civilian oversight — unheard of.  The implications were — and are — significant.  Our founders did not want a standing, national armed force.  They believed that state and local ‘militias’ would suffice.  Thus they wanted each male (mostly white and certainly ‘free’) to be able to have at hand a single shot musket, perhaps a single shot pistol, a knife and a hatchet.  Each would automatically become a member of the local militia.  These local militias were to insure that no military force, nor a single person, would take over the government and, if needed, they would be called upon to protect the nation.  There is no way, of course, that they could foresee that this would be adulterated and become transformed into the ‘guns-rights’ debacle that exists today.

‘We the People’ also required that all voting citizens (then, free and mostly white males), be educated enough so he could become responsible and response-able citizens.  This would mean that voting citizens needed access to public education.  Citizens must be educated so they could carry out their duties as citizens.  So they could become informed as to the issues that faced those they elected and so that they could then lead these elected officials; the citizens would be the leaders and those elected would ‘serve’ the citizens.  ‘We the People’ required this.

To what extent have ‘We the People’ moved to ‘Those in Office’?  To what extent have we (myself included) given up our being responsible and response-able citizens and taken on the ‘you-take-care-of-us’ role?  How many of us truly seek to be educated Citizens?  How many of us have actually taken on the mantle of ‘We the People’ — the number of folks that don’t vote and don’t care and ‘feel powerless’ seem to increase with each generation.  We are powerless because WE have given up our power to those we elect — simple enough to understand.  We now serve those we elect and we certainly don’t hold them accountable.  We have lost the ‘We’ of the nation for the ‘We’ of the district (thanks in part to gerrymandering).  We do not engage in civil discourse — our founders showed us the necessity for and the power of such discourse.

Are you and I willing to recommit to our founders’ powerful phrase and all that this phrase implies?  Do we truly have the courage to commit to. . . ‘We the People’?

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My daughter was in a fender-bender yesterday.  She is fine and the fender, well, the fender performed its function like the secret service agent throwing himself in front of the president; it took one for my daughter.  Later on I began to think about ‘control.’  The person whose car hit my daughter’s had ‘lost control’ — she claimed.

How often do you, gentle reader, and I feel we should be able to control the world — the world should cooperate with us.  ‘I can only accept so much trouble today,’ I pine, ‘so please don’t whelm me over today,’ I plead.  The world doesn’t care.  Regarding ‘nature,’ the world is indifferent — what is, is and what will be, will be.  So the earthquake, the rain, the cold cloudy skies of late October will or will not occur.  Nature doesn’t care about you or me or us; nature is indifferent AND we can’t control her and most of the time we can’t even predict what she will offer up to us (I have said for years that the perfect job is that of weather-person; you don’t even have to be correct for the winds of nature will blow where they will; not as you predict).

Now I can hear myself saying in response to the world not behaving as I want it to behave, ‘Life is not fair!’ And, so, it isn’t.  Life is impartial, at best.  Moreover, how can I expect to control the world when I can’t even control myself.  I can’t tell my blood to flow a certain way; I can’t tell my heart to beat more slowly and I certainly can’t scream ‘RELAX’ when I am whelmed over by stress (and I will then, indeed, relax).  I can, however, influence many of my body’s functions and at times that suffices.  I know, intellectually, that whole grains will not guarantee me immortality.

I also can’t control my mind.  Mindfulness partly involves coming to understand and accept that my mind is not an object to be controlled.  If I try to think only one thought my mind will wander.  If I try to ‘clear my mind’ I will imagine the weirdest things.  All sorts of things continue to bubble up no matter how much energy I put into controlling them — thoughts, impulses, feelings, sensations, etc.

To add to my control woes, I also attempt to control others.  I coerce them, I manipulate them, at my best I will attempt to persuade them or influence them.  I even find myself trying to control those who are in cars; I did this today.  I found myself yelling at the ‘car’ in front of me: ‘Speed up you dolt!’ ‘Don’t leave such a big space between you and the car in front of you,’ I yelled.  No luck — no compliance on the other car’s part.  The space was left and lo-and-behold another car moved into that space.

Sadly, I have learned — mostly — that the more I attempt to control all of this stuff the more I become obsessed with control and hence the more I become vulnerable to the pain when I experience that I, indeed, cannot control the world.  So, when all else fails, I return to Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Serenity Prayer’ (he wrote this in 1937 and it has been used by and attributed to a number of other folks — but it was written by Reinhold):  Here is his prayer:

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.  Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen.”

Amen, indeed!

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I received an email from a good friend today and in it he described himself as struggling to ‘get over his cynicism.’  What is cynicism? What is a cynic?  Consider the following. . .

Cynicism is a school of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics. For the Cynics, the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame.  Cynics lived a simple life free from all possessions.

The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BC. He was followed by Diogenes of Sinope.  Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the 1st century, and Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the Empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century.  Early Christianity adopted many of its ascetic ideas — some, like fasting, continue to be embraced by many Christian denominations.

Cynicism is one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies. It offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Although there was never an official Cynic doctrine, the fundamental principles of Cynicism can be summarized as follows:

*  The goal of life is Eudaimonia (i.e. human welfare or human flourishing) and mental clarity or lucidity – freedom from ‘inner smoke’ which signified ignorance, mindlessness, folly and conceit. [I am reminded of the idea that when the body fills with dense smoke we suffocate from within]
* Inner smoke is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions, unnatural desires and a vicious character.
*  Eudaimonia is achieved by living in accord with Nature as understood by human reason.
*  Eudaimonia depends on self-sufficiency, equanimity, arete (i.e. excellence of any kind), love of humanity, parrhesia (i.e. to ask forgiveness for speaking candidly) and indifference to the vicissitudes of life.
*  One progresses towards flourishing and clarity through ascetic practices which help one become free from influences – such as wealth, fame, or power – that have no value in Nature. A Example: Diogenes’ practice of walking barefoot in winter.
*  A Cynic practices shamelessness or impudence and defaces the Nomos (i.e. local habits or customs) of society; the laws, customs and social conventions which people take for granted.

THEN there is that ‘other’ cynic — the ‘modern’ version.  A person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view, a person who shows or expresses a bitterly or sneeringly cynical attitude. In Medieval times a cynic was one who resembled the actions of a snarling dog. A cynic, for most of us today, is one who is distrusting or disparaging of the motives of others and is often experienced as bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous or pessimistic. I have known a number of cynics (not the philosophers) and I found that each seemed to be deeply wounded – they were once deeply committed idealists and made the mistake of converting their idealism into expectations and their expectations into ‘demands.’  I have also experienced that deep within the cynic is the skeptic waiting to be called forth – and we need effective skeptics.

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