"Words once in common use now sound so archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus... Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones who shone. The rest -- unknown, unasked for a minute after death. What is 'eternal' fame? Emptiness. Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish actions; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
At the moment I write this, there are homeless people in the city I live in. There are people with families and children who have no money and who are facing eviction; who right now, as I write this, are dreading tomorrow morning because they will no longer be able to have a home. There are people who have burden upon burden pile upon them or their families: poverty, sickness, physical and mental abuse, physical and mental illness, lack of education or opportunities. People with such clear disadvantages in life that it is hard to fathom what the point was in their being born at all. Why be born only to struggle in such harrowing conditions. To have the powerful pulse to live, only to be constantly thwarted by the difficulty in achieving even the most basic securities required for living well. People in such hard circumstances that to even think about the possibility of my life looking like theirs makes me shudder with incomprehension.
Those people, how far they seem from Obama and Bill Gates, from Michael Jordan and Madonna, from Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. These people seem to exemplify human life in some form. They seem to transcend even the question of whether their life was worth living, for the answer seems so obviously "yes!" They seem like paradigms of what a human life can look like, paradigms which call out for emulation. Can we imagine Michael Jordan homeless? Or Rawls living in the projects as a drug addict? The mind rebels at the thought. At least my mind rebels, and I suspect I am not alone in this regard. The mind cries out, "No, not Michael Jordon! He is the very exemplar of being an athlete!" He embodies excellence in such a pure form that we can only imagine him as a shining beacon, a distant star which we are lucky to behold in our midst. He is so perfect at what he does that he seems to have achieved a kind of perfection as a human being, as if the halo of his excellence at basketball has expanded to envelope his whole life, and he stands forth as an ideal of humanness--a modern day Achilles.
These people's lives seem meaningful because it is their lives that we orient our own life around. It is tempting and natural to say, "Of course Einstein or Mother Teresa or Gandhi lived worthwhile lives!" For their lives have become for us not just the lives of particular people, but something more. Something much more. They have become ideals by which we define what a worthwhile life looks like.
These people, the greats, seem unique because they exhibit a skill which the vast majority of people can't even hope to have--a skill which in fact seems particular just to those great people. In contrast, those people, the utter have nots, seem to barely be managing a human life because they cannot consistently exercise even the most basic skills which most people take completely for granted; skills of self-sufficiency such as having a bed for the night and a shower in the morning.
These people are at one end, and those people are at the other end. I seem to be in the middle, along with multitudes of people.
Often it feels as if there is some greatness within my grasp, something that I feel I can achieve and which would establish my life as being utterly and completely meaningful--so much so that the threat of meaningfulness has been completely eradicated. The greatness might not be as explicit as with Jordan or Gandhi or Rawls, but perhaps I would exhibit something of the kind in moments of my life, in a phrase uttered here or an action performed there or a project I cultivate over time. At the very least, my life would be directed towards such greatness, and that seems to make it worthwhile. And the fear and the dread is that what might happen instead is that misfortune might befall me and far from reaching towards the greats, as it can seem to be my birth right, I might fall backwards into the chasms of the nameless downtrodden masses, the ones who seem to not have enough of an identity--genuine, unique identity!--to even strive for some success, let alone greatness. The fear that instead of moving in the direction of "eternal fame" I might instead fall in with the "unknown, unasked for."
Is it possible to see Gandhi and a homeless person as living equally meaningful lives? That really their lives amount to the same? To not just say this, but to really face up to that fact? This is the possibility Marcus Aurelius is interested in. The possibility where one can see the great person and the downtrodden person as on the same plane, as being part of the same nexus of nature, of being tossed about in the same waves of life. And how would I think of myself if I were able to see Gandhi and the homeless person with such equinity? What would it mean to see my own life with such equanimity, where I possess the "resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar"?
Is such equanimity an insightful peace or a formless insanity? It can feel like peace because it promises an end to the incessant striving which characterizes life. That if only one could see all people from the same perspective, an objective, transcendent view of the human condition becomes possible. At the same time, such equanimity can seem like a formless morass, for without striving and without some sense for how one way of living is better than other, there is no life.
A working definition of wisdom: the ability to cultivate insightful equanimity without falling into formless equanimity.
How can one cultivate that kind of ability? How can the two kinds of equanimity be distinguished?
One way to interpret Aurelius' injunction "to accept whatever happens as necessary" is that no one thing is worth striving for more than any other. On this interpretation, there is no difference between Gandhi and a homeless person because being like Gandhi is no more worth striving for than being a homeless person. The idea here is that wisdom consists of not striving in any way, and to let one's life unfold as it does whether that leads to celebrated achievements or to homelessness. The only thing to do is to just watch it all unfold without any inner turmoil, since no one thing is worth striving for more than any other.
The problem with this interpretation is that patently some things are worth striving for as opposed to other things. For example, no one wants to be homeless. Even the homeless people do not want that as a general way of life. They are not homeless because they choose it as their ideal for living, the way one might choose being a lawyer over being an athlete. To the contrary, they are homeless because they lost their grip, or never found a grip, on how to live life in a flourishing way. This is not to make a claim on them as people, but to highlight the obvious fact of their situation--a fact which homeless people themselves often correctly highlight by describing their situation as unfortunate and that they need help to get out of it. It would be absurd for a well off person to say to a homeless person, "My good fellow, have some perspective! There is no difference between your life and my life, for we are all part of nature. So press on with equanimity with your homelessness as I press on with equanimity to the movies!" The insensitivity of such a remark lies in the insincere suggestion that having a home and being homeless are, in the grand scheme of things, the same and so one is not any more worth striving for than the other. It is easy to see the remark as just an excuse for not thinking about the homeless person.
In general, having a home, a place to spend the night, is worth striving for as opposed to not having a home. Similarly, being healthy is worth striving for as opposed to being sick. Being intelligent as opposed to being dull witted. Having money to experience a flourishing life as opposed to being broke. Being in a community with which one identifies and shares projects than being isolated and misanthropic. Having a job which is fulfilling than not. And so on.
But if some things are worth striving for over other things, how can one accept whatever happens as necessary?
It is by accepting that all one can control is the striving, and that often whether one's striving is successful depends on too many variables outside of one's control. One can strive to be healthy, but not be so because, without knowing, one might live near a toxic factory. Or one can strive to be social, but not succeed because there might not be enough shared background practices between oneself and one's neighbors. One can strive to have a home, but not succeed because too many unfortunate things might have happened all at once. And so on.
The equanimity Aurelius speaks of is not that of not striving at all. Rather, it is the equanimity which comes in the midst of striving for the good things in life, the things which are part of a flourishing individual and communal life. When we strive and don't succeed, sadness or depression can result. Lack of confidence or self-blame can result. Wanting to give up or to blame others can result. It is at this moment and in this context, when one can feel overwhelmed by one's not succeeding, that Aurelius' remark can be apt and powerful. It is a reminder that the cause of the failure might not have been in oneself, that the cause was the flux of nature and that at that moment in time that result was the inevitable product of the causal forces in the world. That accepting the inevitability of that past moment is required to strive again with a fresh and rejuvenated spirit, to be reborn in the next moment so as to strive again.
Generally no one has to be told to strive to be healthy, to have money, to belong to a community. We strive for these things the way we breathe--instinctively. But because we strive for them instinctively doesn't mean that we succeed instinctively. Sometimes we do, and often we don't. And when we don't, we might give up. Or grow angry. Or resentful. The hard work is to continue to strive without being fueled by these negative and tortured emotions. For the tortured emotions result from trying to move on without really accepting what happened. One can say one accepts the lack of success in a given instance, and yet strongly within oneself still resist such acceptance. For fear that to accept failure in that instance might mean to accept oneself as a failure in general. One can put on a bright face to the world while tormenting oneself from within about whether such a bright face is really justified after all, or whether one has earned it truthfully.
The sense in which Gandhi and the homeless person are the same is not that nothing really matters in life. If nothing matters, why am I writing this? Why did Aurelius motivate himself to accept what happens? Why do people talk to each other and live together? No, certainly things matter! This is as basic a feature of life as that we are alive. To be alive is to care, and that is to care for somethings over other things.
Rather, the sense in which Gandhi and the homeless person are the same is that there is the same spirit of striving in both. The flame of life manifests in different ways, but the flame is the same. Gandhi's successes are the result of the combination of Gandhi's striving and the flux of events which enabled that striving to be successful from time to time. It is tempting to think of Gandhi as the guy who defeated the British, and so to lionize and idealize Gandhi, as if his successes were a part of his will, as if he brutly caused something to happen which lesser people could not have achieved through their will. But it is this same impulse to lionize success as if one willed it that makes one feel deflated in defeat, as if the root of the failure was really in one's own self. The success or failure are not in the person. The success or failure happen at the intersection of the person and the world, and the world is too big for any one person to control, and so the success or failure do not flow only out of a person's will.
To see the human will, the flame of life, independent of how it is colored by the flux of the world--that is see human life with a serene and objective detachment, to see it realized in a famous person or in one of the unnamed millions. To see even oneself with such brutal honesty, where one does not take undue credit for one's success nor undue self-blame for one's failures. To know what one has contributed through one's striving and how much of the rest nature has done. To acknowledge both with respect to oneself and others, and to keep moving with nature. That is a way to accept what happens as part of an active life of growth.