Friday, August 31, 2018

Insights From Epictetus' Manual for Living and Richard Bach's Illusions

For decades, I collected a large number of books--many more than I could read, though I did my best and read a lot of them. Recently, I have begun the process of pruning my book collection to a manageable size, reluctantly yet enthusiastically parting company with books that I realize I do not have the time and/or inclination to read. Yes, "reluctantly yet enthusiastically"--at some level I probably will always have a deep seated aversion to parting company with any book, yet I am enthusiastic about focusing my efforts on reading books as opposed to managing a book collection.

I have also made a determined effort to seek counsel, wisdom and comfort from brief yet meaningful books on days that I know will be challenging emotionally, mentally and/or physically (for example, long travel days involving my parenting time with my daughter Rachel). Last month, I read Epictetus’ Manual for Living on one such day (the specific edition is Sharon Lebell's "new interpretation" published by HarperCollins in 1994). Yesterday, I read Richard Bach’s Illusions. Both books have been in my collection for at least 20 years, yet I had never read either one before.

I wonder how my life would be different had I spent less time/effort buying books and more time/effort reading them, but that would have required me obtaining the realization that it is not possible to read EVERYTHING, which would have been a psychologically uncomfortable admission of defeat (or perceived defeat) that was inconceivable for me to make; only by reframing the issue more realistically (I can't read everything, so I better focus on reading that which is most significant/meaningful) was I able to achieve a more productive outlook. I do not completely regret my earlier mentality, as it is a worthy goal to try to gain as much knowledge as possible; I recall a reviewer noting that Norman Mailer's goal was to be the greatest novelist ever and, whether or not one believes that he achieved that distinction, it was a meaningful goal and he produced works of lasting value while pursuing that bold quest.

The Manual for Living contains several gems that resonate with me. Here are a few:

1) "Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not."

2) "From now on practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: 'You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.'" Epictetus then advises classifying the appearance as either something that one can control or something that one cannot control, and if one cannot control it then one should train oneself not to worry about it.

3) "Regardless of what others profess, they may not truly live by spiritual values. Be careful whom you associate with. It is human to imitate the habits of those with whom we interact. We inadvertently adopt their interests, their opinions, their values, and their habit of interpreting events. Though many people mean well, they can just the same have a deleterious influence on you because they are undisciplined about what is worthy and what isn't. Just because some people are nice to you doesn't mean you should spend time with them."

Three concepts from Illusions grabbed me:

1) "Like attracts like. Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright. Automatically, as we shine who we are, asking ourselves every minute is this what I really want to do, doing it only when we answer yes, automatically that turns away those who have nothing to learn from who we are and attracts those who do, and from whom we have to learn, as well."

2) "The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly."

3) "Only a few people are interested in what you have to say, but that's all right. You don't tell the quality of a master by the size of his crowds..."

I will let the reader ponder five of those quotes without further commentary but I will expound on the second quote from Illusions. That quote suggests a multi-part inquiry: Do you believe that evil exists and, if so, do you believe that good ultimately triumphs over evil, either in this world or in some form of afterlife? Or, do you believe, as the quote suggests, that things which seem unjust to us are in fact part of a larger scheme of things in which injustice does not exist? My strong inclination is to believe that evil is real and that we have an individual and collective responsibility to combat evil as forcefully as possible. Regarding whether or not there is a larger picture/higher truth that we are not able to perceive from our current vantage point, I am unsure both if that is true and if it is relevant; I certainly want to believe that this is true but I also tend to incline toward the view that the Holocaust rendered some philosophies/viewpoints irrelevant, if not obscene and disrespectful to the memory of the innocent victims. I struggle to perceive a larger picture in which throwing live babies into crematoria is somehow equivalent to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. I understand conceptually the argument that the Holocaust was a failure of man, not God, but it is hard to reconcile the idea of a Being who is all-knowing/all-powerful with a Being who permits such horrors to occur.

Reframing one's perspective is a useful exercise in many aspects of life, but much like the laws of physics collapse at a singularity, many philosophies/perspectives that have great utility nevertheless seem inadequate when applied to the Holocaust (and the same could be said of other evils, though the dimensions, scale and intent of the Holocaust are unprecedented).

In the Star Wars universe, Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker that truth depends on your point of view. Obi-Wan had told Luke that Darth Vader betrayed and killed Luke's father Anakin, when of course what had happened was that Anakin had become Darth Vader. When Luke learned the truth and confronted Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan replied that when Anakin became Darth Vader the good man that he had been no longer existed and therefore from a "certain point of view" what Obi-Wan had said was true.

Luke tended to think in terms of absolutes. When he used the Force to perceive that his friends were in danger, he cut short his training and essentially challenged Vader and Vader's forces all by himself, defying the advice of both Obi-Wan and Yoda, who believed that from the larger perspective the highest priority was that Luke complete his Jedi training, even if Luke's friends might be killed. Luke answered simply that he could help them and that after he helped them he would return to complete his training. Is Luke a hero, is he reckless or is he both? How you answer that question depends on whether you believe that the potential death of Luke's friends is an unjust tragedy or simply part of a bigger picture.

In the end, as Yoda later pointed out, Luke's friends rescued themselves and had to rescue Luke as well, which to Yoda's way of thinking rendered Luke's mission foolhardy. Yoda's perception is that Luke should have followed his training path and let events happen as they would, while Luke felt that he had the power and the responsibility to fight evil with all of his might.

During the Holocaust, the Bielski Partisans battled the Nazis with guerilla warfare while also rescuing thousands of civilians and sheltering them from the death camps. One faction of the Bielski Partisans leadership deemed the civilians who were too young, too old or too infirm to fight as "useless eaters" but the prevailing consensus was that rescuing the helpless gave meaning to the Bielski Partisans' efforts. What would it matter if they blew up a few more supply bridges at the cost of letting their children and elderly relatives perish?

Luke Skywalker thought like a Bielski Partisan; do your best to rescue anyone who you might be able to save and don't just focus on your own training/efforts/path.

Yoda (and Richard Bach) may be right conceptually but as a human being who is pained by the injustice and suffering that I perceive (however illusory it may supposedly turn out to be from some larger perspective), I identify with Luke and the Bielski Partisans.

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