March 2: From Storm to Stormtrooper
“This is the true athlete — the person in rigorous training against false impressions. Remain firm, you who suffer, don’t be kidnapped by your impressions! The struggle is great, the task divine — to gain mastery, freedom, happiness, and tranquility.” Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.27–28
“Robbers, perverts, killers, and tyrants — gather for your inspection their so-called pleasures!” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.34
Sometimes this “ancient wisdom” stuff can get me down a bit. It can seem like a pack of dead know-it-alls pointing their fingers at the world, endlessly criticizing, giving directions about how things should be. It can seem like having a pack of annoying dads on your case: “Clean your room!” “Stand up straight!” Yeah, yeah… I’ve heard it before.
What helps me past that is remembering that these folks were all just like me. They lived, they had problems, they had to “figure it out” through trial and error. They’re really not “masters” in glittering robes lording their “wisdom” over me as in some religious cult. They’re just guys who were saying, “Here’s what worked for me. Give it a try if you like.” They’re on my team — the human team. We’re equals in this endeavor called life.
Having a common human heritage, we also have a common mental inheritance. That means we are prone to the same cognitive pitfalls and mistakes. If they dealt with those successfully, what can I learn from them about how to overcome the things that keep me from happiness? Today’s quotes are based around that theme.
Today’s big theme is impressions, but we’re not talking about paintings by Monet.
Our impressions of things determine how we see the world. Whether we think something is good or bad often depends on our impressions.
But what if our impressions are off the mark? That can mean that the good seems bad, and bad seems good. When that happens, we are in for a world of self-imposed hurt.
So what’s the solution?
The first stage of the cure for that illness from which we all suffer — errant impressions — is awareness.
We need to become aware that our impressions — defined as “automatic, unquestioned perceptions” — are NOT the same as reality.
If we choose to, we can evaluate our self-generated falsities and correct them. When we do that, and take the time to get good at doing that, we come to see the world more accurately. That allows us to make better decisions about what to do and how to spend our time. The first quote recognizes this. Once we get free of our own internal errors, we have a real chance at gaining “freedom, mastery, happiness, and tranquility.” If we are under the influence of our false impressions, that’s hard if not impossible to do.
The second quote is about what happens if we fail to be aware of our false impressions. If those automatic, unquestioned perceptions are off the mark, and we remain unaware of it, we can fall into thinking that what we are doing is good when it is actually quite bad. Then without knowing it we can become “robbers, perverts, killers, and tyrants.”
I’ve known a few people who have been in prison, and they always tell me that the inmates think they are the ones who have really been wronged. Maybe in some cases that’s true, and of course we’ve all suffered injustices in life. But when they did bad things, they did it with the impression they were right. Personally, I’d rather not end up in there myself for thinking that what’s right is wrong and the reverse.
But there is more than one kind of “prison.” The undisciplined mind that assumes all of its impressions are truth can become a “chamber of horrors.” And you can create that misery for yourself without ever hearing the jail cell doors slam shut behind you if you believe everything you automatically think is true. As Milton said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself it can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”
How do we get out of this “jail” of self-imposed, self-created delusion?
We need to “quiet the storm” within our own minds. Yeah, it can be kinda boring — self-awareness is not as fun or exciting as YouTube or TikTok videos. But if we don’t become aware of our perceptual errors, our internal “storm” gets externalized, and we the become “troopers” of that storm: meting out anger, misery, hatred, personal tyranny, or worse. The stormtroopers of both modern times and fictional worlds like Star Wars never think they are the bad guys. They think they’re saving the universe when they follow their “star”: one that metes out death rather than life.
So, to keep from being “robbers, perverts, killers, and tyrants,” or “stormtroopers,” we must work on quieting our minds and overcoming our false impressions.
As I attempt that difficult endeavor, I am comforted by the fact our ancient “instructors,” like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, managed it. And since they were human, I, being human like them, can manage it, too.
One final motivation, if another is needed: I do well to keep in mind that acting on the truth rather than doesn’t just benefit me. It helps the rest of mankind. We should always keep in mind that the best way to help the world is usually to “fix” ourselves.
I hope that was interesting — and “enlightening.” I’ll look forward to seeing what you folks have to say on the topic.