The Art of Acquiescence

This is another chapter reflection in my The Obstacle is the Way project.


Be guided by the fates

This chapter starts with a quote from someone named Cleanthes, who I know nothing about. But, I’m a sucker for mythology so I liked it:

The Fates guide the person who accepts them and hinder the person who resists them.

-Cleanthes

The rest of the chapter was about the value of being guided by the fates. It began with the story of Thomas Jefferson and the speech impediment he was born with. In an era when oratory was the accepted route to politics, it seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, but Jefferson wasn’t deterred. Instead of going the Teddy Roosevelt route and deciding to overcome his challenges, he decided to ‘go with the flow’ and instead focus on his writing.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Then, the chapter offers a really interesting definition of genius:

“True genius,” as the infamous Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “is a mind of large general powers accidentally determined in some paticular direction.”

I like the idea that the ‘particular direction’ we take is at least in part accidental. (It matches my experience of life.)

And then Ryan Holiday gives a great example:

If someone we knew took traffic signals personally, we would judge them insane.

Yet this is weyactly what life is doing to us. It tells us to come to a stop here. Or that some intersection is blocked or that a particular road has been rerouted through an inconvenient detour. We can’t argue or yell this problem away. We simply accept it.

The chapter continues for a few more pages, but that’s the meat of it right there: learning to accept the fates can mean accepting that your path in life is sometimes more accidental than you hoped for, and that events that you can’t change are to be accepted.

I like the comparison with traffic signals, because it’s easy to relate to. We’ve all driven detours and still arrived at our destination. And, we’ve also seen the traffic signals and decided “you know what, I can go there another time.” (That’s how I interact with major road closings downtown.)

When should you bend?

The fun of reading the book out of order now is that I get to directly contrast this chapter with the chapter on the Inner Citadel. To go from holding up Teddy Roosevelt as an example of will triumphing over circumstances to Thomas Jefferson as an example of will bending with the circumstances, it’s logical to ask yourself: when should I bend? When should I invest my will in defying circumstances?

It’s easy to complain that Holiday doesn’t go into specifics. (He almost never does.) But I think that the two examples and the traffic metaphor are enough to extrapolate some thinking.

First, it should be pointed out that Teddy Roosevelt didn’t randomly decide to overcome his asthma. He had the advantage of his father’s wisdom which said to him: I think you can do it. I know it will be hard, but it seems doable. Further, it seems like the only route to where you’re destined to go.

Second, Jefferson didn’t have that level of wisdom at his disposal (in the anecdotes. I don’t know anything about his actual family.) Today, perhaps they’d have organized a speech therapist for him and he’d be the prequel to “The King’s Speech.” The fact of the matter is: nobody could tell Jefferson if there was a route open to him that involved investing a lot of willpower in overcoming his speech impediment. (And, in the other example of Edison’s difficulty hearing, we know there’s not a solution).

My point is this: it takes a certain degree of wisdom to know what’s available.

Third, the car metaphor is apt, because it lends itself well to the idea of ‘goals as destinations.’ We’re trained to think that a car is the fastest way to get somewhere. The longer you live somewhere — the more wisdom you gain about a place — the more you realize that often walking, a bicycle, or public transportation are faster than a car. There are times when it makes more sense to get out of the car and to put in the ‘hard work’ of walking, because that’s the smartest thing to do.

Returning to the earlier examples: Roosevelt and Jefferson both saw a mountain between themselves and their destination. But Roosevelt had the advantage of his father’s wisdom who said “Teddy, the only way over this mountain is to climb it. It’s going to be difficult, but I think you have what it takes. Further, you’ll be happier on the other side and glad for it.”

Jefferson, on the other hand, had to reach a conclusion on his own and it seems to have been something more along the lines of “I don’t know if I can get over this mountain. Nobody ever has. But, I think I see a pass further along in that direction. Better to invest my energy into getting into and through the pass than in an attempt that might never work.”

They both would up where they wanted to go, and they both (probably) took the route that was right for them.

Conclusion

When I started writing this, I didn’t expect there to be so much of my own thought in it. (It’s part of why I write, I guess.)

The thing is: it’s easy to analyze the two stories and their well-known outcomes and say “Teddy was right to draw on the strength of his Inner Citadel, and Jefferson was right to be guided by the fates.” But, when we see our own mountain in front of us, how can we know whether we should get out of the car and climb, or start moving laterally in search of a pass?

The answer seems to lie in Roosevelt’s father: we need wisdom. We need both to learn what we can — what have other’s accomplished? what is possible? — and to have our own council of the wise that can I say to us “I think that can be done” or “that’s the fates at work, there’s no sense in railing against them.”

And, of course, there’s the additional challenge of developing the wisdom needed to recognize that wisdom. But, I don’t know if I have an answer to that.

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Build Your Inner Citadel

In my continuing The Obstacle is the Way project, I’m writing on this chapter of the book.


In another chapter that provides a great tip, but doesn’t explain how to follow through with it, Ryan Holiday begins this chapter of The Obstacle is the Way by referening my (sometimes) favorite American president, Teddy Roosevelt.

[speaking of asthmatic, weak young Teddy] One day his father came into his room and delivered a message that would change the young boy’s life: “Theodore, you have the mind but you haven’t got the body. I’m giving you the tools to make your body. It’s going to be hard drudgery and I think you have the determination to go through with it.”

You’d think that would be lost on a child, especially a fragile one born into great wealth and status. But according to Roosevelt’s younger sister, who witnessed the conversation, it wasn’t. His response, using what would become his trademark cheerful grit, was to look at his father and say with determination: “I’ll make my body.”

I love Theodore Roosevelt for a number of reasons, but I think his relationship with manliness is problematic. (I read an article that suggested he may have driven a son to suicide with his expectations.) Still, his determination is enviable, at the least.

Moving on philosophy, Holiday talks of developing “mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body,” and matches this to what stoics called their “Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down.”

Then, the narrative returns to Roosevelt:

To Roosevelt, life was like an arena and he was a gladiator. In order to survive, he needed to be strong, resilient, fearless, ready for anything. And he was willing to risk great personal harm and expend massive amounts of energy to develop that hardiness.

And all that is great… but that’s where the chapter winds down. (There’s one last quote that I’m saving for the end, as seems to have become my tradition.)

And, as a guy who flirts with an obsession with fitness, it’s easy for me to think that I’m moving down the right path. But, I don’t know. Holiday doesn’t end the chapter with his list of “Ten Things You Can Do Today to Become the Architect of your Own Inner Citadel” and I’m left with a list of questions:

  • Should I invest more energy in meditation?
  • Do the things I do to practice practice help?
  • What about cold showers: they certainly demand willpower, do they also strengthen it?
  • Does enduring voluntary adversity help when involuntary adversity comes knocking?

There aren’t answers, and I’m left reaffirming my commitment to fitness and “making the most of my time.” (Whatever that means.)

However, I did mention that there is one last great quote. It’s as close as Holiday comes to direct advice in this chapter, and I like the first sentence enough to maybe write it on my wall:

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. We can’t afford to shy away from the things that intimidate us. We don’t need to take our weaknesses for granted.