True Happiness Is a Verb

Monday 28 December 2020

Dear C,

Having written you yesterday about Annie Liebovits and Susan Sontag, I want to mention today that I took the phrase “Wisdom Project” from Sontag in her collection,  At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches. I see The Brothers Karamazov as part of that lifetime project, as well as, say, Diane di Prima’s “Life Chant” and Nhat Hanh’s commentaries on the Mahayana sutras.

It may surprise you that I’d also include in that company Epictetus,  a former slave who influenced the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius.  For many years I used a contemporary rendering of his Stoic philosophy in Humanities classes.  Sharon Lebell’s The Art of Living  could be read in less than two hours but it can warrant  a lifetime of training.

Since you  are no stranger to running long distances, you know the the vision and work, the strategies and tactics one needs for finishing a half-marathon. So reading Epictetus may sound familiar to you, though the “race” is really our engagement with each new day when we awaken in the morning.  

I’d like to share some passages with you from Lebell’s work, principally Epictetus’s “manual,” but also some of the discourses recorded by one of his dedicated students.  Maybe a few of these may have relevance to graduate study in social work…

Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible….We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives….Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment. [3]

What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.  [7]

What is really your own? The use you make of the ideas, resources, and opportunities that come your way. Do you have books? Read them. Learn from them. Apply their wisdom. Do you have specialized knowledge? Put it to its full and good use. Do you have tools? Get them out and build or repair things with them. Do you have a good idea? Follow up and follow through on it. Make the most of what you’ve got, what is actually yours. [12-13] 

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that celebrities, public figures, political leaders, the wealthy, or people with great intellectual or artistic gifts are necessarily happy. To do so is to be bewildered by appearances and will only make you doubt yourself. [26]

In trying to please other people, we find ourselves misdirected toward what lies outside our sphere of influence. In doing so we lose our hold on our life’s purpose. [31]

By considering the big picture, you distinguish yourself from the mere dabbler, the person who plays at things as long as they feel comfortable or interesting. This is not noble. Think things through and fully commit! Otherwise, you will be like a child who sometimes pretends he or she is a wrestler, sometimes a solider, sometimes a musician, sometimes an actor in a tragedy. Unless we fully give ourselves over to our endeavors, we are hollow, superficial people and we never develop our natural gifts.  [39]

You can only be one person—either a good person or a bad person. You have two essential choices. Either you can set yourself to developing your reason, cleaving to truth, or you can hanker after externals. The choice is yours and yours alone. You can either put your skills toward internal work or lose yourself to externals, which is to say, be a person of wisdom or follow the common ways of mediocre.  [41]  

Follow through on all your generous impulses. Do not question them, especially if a friend needs you; act on his or her behalf. Do not hesitate!  [49] 

Be selective about whom you take on as friends, colleagues, and neighbors. All of these people can affect your destiny. They world is full of agreeable talented folk. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.  [54]

So, if anyone should tell you that a particular person has spoken critically of you, don’t bother with excuses or defenses. Just smile and reply, “I guess that person doesn’t know about all my other faults. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have mentioned only these.” [58]

The first task of the person who wishes to live wisely is to free himself or herself from the confines of self-absorption. [75] 

Most people don’t realize that both help and harm come from within ourselves. Instead they look to externals, mesmerized by appearances. [76] 

When the soul cries out, it is a sign that we have arrived at a necessary, mature stage of self-reflection. The secret is not to get stuck there dithering or wringing your hands, but to move forward by resolving to heal yourself. Philosophy asks us to move into courage. Its remedy is the unblinking excavation of the faulty and specious premises on which we base our lives and our personal identity. [83] 

True happiness is a verb. It’s the ongoing dynamic performance of worthy deeds. The flourishing life, whose foundation is virtuous intention, is something we continually improvise, and in doing so our souls mature. Our life has usefulness to ourselves and to the people we touch. [85]

Thank you for your accompaniment with me in 2020 and Happy New Year 2021!


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