I initially titled this “The True Man Is Revealed In Difficult Times”
Let me go right ahead and correct the title, as obviously, philosophical advice can apply to anyone.
The True Person Is Revealed In Difficult Times
The title of this essay is the first sentence of one of the discourses of Epictetus, entitled “How we should struggle with circumstance”. It’s a two-page analysis of how we should cherish the tough parts of our lives because that is precisely when our values are put to the test.
Many people will take the opposite approach and lament their terrible situation, instead of taking the time to stop crying, and understand that there is always a silver lining, always a golden opportunity just waiting to be grasped, even at the worse of times.
Let’s dive right in and take a fairly extreme event such as the death of a parent. This is a major life event, and it’s only going to happen a maximum of twice during the course of our lives, so there is not a huge amount of preparation to be had.
So while it’s obvious that the death of a parent can be upsetting, it doesn’t always have to be.
Let me give you a personal anecdote.
My father is currently (when I wrote this in 2015) in the advanced stages of vascular dementia, which is caused by blood clots that stop enough oxygenated blood from reaching the brain. It has many of the same outward effects as Alzheimer’s disease.
I’ve not seen him for two years, but being in the advanced stages of vascular dementia, means that both his body and his mind are wasting away, as the brain slowly stops functioning. He is not able to walk, talk, remember anyone, or look after himself.
So in this case, the death of one of my parents, my father, may not be particularly disturbing to me. This is not because I don’t love him, or because I don’t care. Rather, it’s more a recognition of the natural order of things.
Let’s look at the facts:
- People die, all over the world, everyday.
- Everyone dies, eventually.
- The older you are, the more likely you are to pass away sooner rather than later. My dad is in his mid 70s.
- My dad has a terminal disease that is not particularly pleasant. He has lived a rich and full life, and one could argue that it was perhaps too rich and full, and that his unhealthy lifestyle is what led to his current state.
So I am already armed with the knowledge that he will die some day, and I have been able to prepare for this very real possibility for over two years, I don’t think his death will be particularly shocking for me, and in fact, it may come as a relief for the part of the family who is actually looking after him.
Again, I’m not a cold-hearted monster, but I accept the fact that nothing that is an intrinsic part of life can be bad, and that includes death.
Imagine the terrible fate that would lie in wait for the world if everybody simply stopped dying!
Additionally, this situation has actually improved me. I’ve been forced to consider and think about death head-on, and I’ve come out of it a far more mature person. I am not truly aware that I won’t live forever, and so I don’t live like I think I will, which is what I see people do around me every day.
That is also part of the beauty of life, in that it is limited. There will be one last time that we smell flowers, that we take a walk on a fresh spring morning, that we hear birds sing, or that we eat pizza!
Update: My dad did indeed die a few months after I wrote this, and I then wrote an essay on my reflections during that period.
That’s why many philosophers advise us to think about death because it can enhance our enjoyment of life. We’ll never take anything for granted if we’re truly aware that one day it will be all over.
So going back to the original point, we need to learn to take advantage of even the most difficult life situations, and turn them around so we come out better on the other side.
We should be like wrestlers, and enjoy the fact that we have an opponent in peak condition to practice against, who will turn us into Olympic-class material.
After all, we don’t really have a choice. The other approach is to descend into a well of self-pity and loathing, and promptly sink into the waters of depression. I always like to keep failure in mind in my daily life, and I try to remember that the only failure is failing to learn from failure.
While we can also learn from others’ mistakes and mishaps, no one’s difficulties will give us as good a test as our own, and that’s why we should welcome these types of situations.
Don’t think, “My business is not going well, I am going to be ruined!”.
Think, “This is a great opportunity to make those long overdue cost savings, both in my personal life, as well as in my business.”.
Don’t think, “I’ve got an injury, I won’t be able to run for six weeks!”.
Think, “What a great opportunity to become a better swimmer!”.
And so on..
This is a major step forward in living a happy, fulfilled life, where everything is to our advantage.
Thanks for reading
PS: I just wanted to update this essay again, because I’ve been thinking about this topic of how difficult situations reveal you to yourself, but also how they can reveal others to you. There is funny quote from Steven J. Daniels which comes to mind which sums it up brilliantly:
A good friend will help you move, but a true friend will help you move a body.