I have used many philosophical and religious systems in my life, for personal improvement mainly. I’ve been a devout and now a nominal (if that) Christian. I’ve read numerous philosophers. At university, as a literature major, I was obliged to read widely and often. This I gladly did. I could never quite come to know a system that worked for me, that reflected life as it is lived and not as some dogma pronounced.
My favorite bible book is Ecclesiastes. It has more sound wisdom in it than the entire collection of epistles, stories, and myths in the Jewish and Greek Testaments. It’s curious that no one preaches from this book, probably because it goes against all the tenets of Paul’s version of Christianity. I have to say that my favorite philosophers have been the more practical ones. I’m all about practicality until I get some damn fool notion of romance into my head. One of the most practical is Aristotle. The Transcendentalists are sublime. The Stoics are admirable AND practical.
My morning read always includes a portion from The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. In today’s portion, a quote from Seneca, Moral Letter, 83.2
I shall keep watching myself continually, and – a most useful habit – shall review each day. For this is what makes us wicked: that no one of us looks back over his own life. Our thoughts are devoted only to what we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future always depend on the past.
Good words to heed and keeping a journal has been a daily habit with me for over 40 years. I do look back over my life and realize all of the mistakes in thinking that I keep making and all of the actual mistakes. It’s a very self-reflective journal, sometimes nauseatingly so. Daily examination is a good thing, although as a Christian this would always turn into some kind of scrupulosity fest which never made me feel any better. But one thing the Stoics believed was that we have control over one thing; our own minds. All else stems from that, including our will.
I’ve also learned a great deal from my husband who follows every whim, denies himself nothing, and seemingly has no control over his own ideas, actions, or choices. He also never reflects on what’s past because he just forgets everything. He’s like a blank slate every day. I ask him about previous marriages and he doesn’t remember anything, or chooses not to. He keeps no diaries or journals or blogs. This complete lack of concern over one’s actions has taught me a great deal about how we see the world and our reactions to it. It’s also taught me that we CANNOT change other people. We can only change our MINDS and therefore, our actions (will). Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations 7.2:
How can our principles become dead, unless the impressions (thoughts) which correspond to them are extinguished? But it is in thy power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame. I can have that opinion about anything, which I ought to have. If I can, why am I disturbed? The things which are external to my mind have no relation at all to my mind.- Let this be the state of thy affects, and thou standest erect. To recover thy life is in thy power. Look at things again as thou didst use to look at them; for in this consists the recovery of thy life.
I need to go back to first principles every single day and reflect on those things that worked for me and those things that didn’t. When was I most happy? When was I most content? What made me feel in control and purposeful in my life? What makes me feel crazy and out of control? It is to these which I must reflect on every morning. As Aurelius said, ‘to recover thy life is in thy power’.
No, I cannot change anyone else, but I can change how I see it and how I react. Now this is easier said than done, but if we keep falling into that hole in the sidewalk instead of choosing to walk around it the next time, we have only ourselves to blame.