Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Letters to a young man 31

Hello my friend. I'm writing on the cusp of one year's end and another's beginning, I hope this finds you well.

You asked me to write to you on dealing with regret. It is at this time of year when you may find yourself looking back over the year that's just passed and also looking forward to the one about to start. Numerous opportunities may have presented themselves which you did not seize. And perhaps you have taken actions which you look back on and wish you hadn't. I know both of these well.

I cannot say with certainty which has troubled me more in life. At one point I might have told you that it was failing to seize opportunities. But in hindsight, I believe this was something I felt mostly as a younger man. And in truth, I think this makes sense and is as it should be: for when young, you are striking out on your own and trying to make something happen with life.

Yet, as I get older it is the mistakes I make that trouble me most. Perhaps it is because I see how easily I might have avoided them. Perhaps I gave into some desire, or gave into anger too easily. Damage can be done quickly and is very slow to heal. And, perhaps because I can see how I've developed that such simple mistakes seem such a waste of life and effort. If you make mistakes more than once they trouble you doubly as you feel more and more foolish for repeating them. Eventually, you see the trap set before you have stepped on it, but it may be a long time coming. In this way we are reminded of how little we know. We think we have a thing figured out and then behave like a fool once again.

In any event, you didn't ask me to ruminate about my own foolishness. You asked me about dealing with regret. It is difficult for me to unwind the two as they are inextricably linked for me. So I will tell you this:

The first thing is to recognize that you are but a man and bound to have failures. Whether this is from lack of action or wrong action, the feeling of regret may sting you. Yet ask yourself: Did the great men of the ages never make mistakes? Did Verus not fail to send Marcus Aurelius to the armies to experience battle and soldering? Certainly he left his adopted son and later emperor ill-equipped for what laid ahead of him. Did Marcus himself never err? These great men of the ages, pick one it doesn't matter who, have all had a hand in some failure of action or inaction. Do you expect more of yourself? To raise such a bar and hold yourself to it is too cruel. You must be lenient and forgiving of yourself—that is the first thing. And of course you should expect failures from those you love most. Deal with them with leniency and forgiveness.

But this is only the first step, the acceptance. To look coldly on your error and not to wince. For if you look away, you are likely to stumble on it once again. This won't do. So, having looked at yourself squarely, you must commit yourself to learning from the mistake. You must commit to doing better at your next opportunity. Yet be mindful of the fact that you may trip up again. Maybe not as wholly, maybe in a different way, but it may happen nonetheless. Do not despair if this happens, but remember what I have told you. You are no different than the great men of the ages in your errors. However, to distinguish yourself you must stay vigilant and honest in your endeavors to remain upright and true. Do not allow yourself to play the hypocrite. With each few steps forward you take, you may fall down. Rise again and take a moment to reflect, then carry on. Life is such.

I wish you all the best as this year comes to a close. May the next year teach you much.

Farewell for now.

My book on stoicism.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Letters to a young man 30

Hello my friend. Of late I have been very busy. As I've told you I am working on a new piece, my longest and perhaps my most important utterance. If I accomplish nothing else, that I finish it is of great importance to me. Yet, it is difficult to finish as I'm always learning more—being ignorant has its merits—for each day I become aware of how little I know. Understanding blossoms in this way. And of course I've been busy with husbandry, with work, and with common tasks. Just today I darned a sock which I'd worn a hole in. Some may say this is women's work, and while it may often be work for the wife, as I've told you before a man must be self-sufficient and prepared. There is no shame in being able to take care of one's self.

But enough of my excuses to you for not writing sooner. Recently I have recalled a friend I have not seen for some time. We met often to talk and discuss philosophy, our lives, our successes, and our troubles. On more than one occasion I acted as teacher. Though he is a little older than I he has steeped in his own misery and ignorance and has often sought my guidance. I do not look down on him in the slightest, let me be crystal clear about that. It is just the way it is between us. Many of my friends and closest counsels are much older, but there are times when a man is your junior yet has some wisdom to share with you. To increase your understanding you must take it from whichever well it comes from.

One such occasion has recurred to me and some of your recent events have made its import to you clear to me. On this night we were discussing some problem which he had, one of many at the time. I remember recommending some course of action. No sooner had the words left my lips than I saw him squint his eyes at me and recoil a bit. He then began to stammer and speak quickly to the point of refusing my advice. He became defensive at it. I did not labor my point further, but listened patiently to him as I quickly realized something that had escaped my grasp prior.

That which I grasped was this: a man may not be ready for certain ideas, solutions, or counsel, no matter if it be the solution which he ultimately requires. You cannot feed a man a cure if he cannot see the need for it. Rather than trying some new way to feed it to him, such as with honeyed words, it is best to remain silent, to hear him out and be a good and patient, listening friend than to force something to him. If you force it, he will not take it and will resent you. In time you may see that he has come around, or is ready for your counsel. Until then, you must remember he is your friend more than he is your pupil. Your key aim is to help him when he requires it rather than constantly admonishing him like some headmaster.

And so it is that you may often see men on some path you know well. They are rejoicing though you can see a coming fall. Very well then, let them. Do not spoil their fun. Let them go about their business. For who are we to say a thing when the thing is not ripe to be said? In all things keep an eye on yourself as much as you keep an eye on others. In this way you may learn and grow and be of most service to them. When they need you, they will call and they may even say to you, "My friend, remember when you said thus and so? How I wish I had listened then, but I was not ready to hear them." And you may reply in true and affectionate kindness to him, "Not at all, brother, I didn't have the words you needed then as much as your ears were not ready."

And finally, lest you think I have forgotten your question to me regarding how a man should behave towards his wife, or a woman he may wish to make a wife: I will be brief and ask you to wait for my coming work which will answer you more fully. Be a shepherd to your wife as to your children. Guide them and enjoy the fruits that they give you. Shield them from the troubles of life. Be patient and kind with them above all others, for they are the jewel of a man's life.

Keep well and take care. Farewell for now.

My book on stoicism.