October 11, 2010
Your Legacy Can Make You Feel Rich
Philosophical Thoughts on Factors That Enhance Quality of Life
Ernest H. Rosenbaum, MD
Leaving a legacy of philosophical thoughts on the meaning of life, for one's children, grandchildren and their children is an important remembrance. Examples of important factors in forming one's philosophical thoughts on life will have value, as long as there is a traditional linkage between parents, children and grandchildren, and their goals are, in part, synonymous.
Many years ago, Aristotle wrote about the fact that those who maintained good habits formed in youth could make a difference later in life. It is, thus, a solid philosophical thought that the way we live can influence and determine, in part, the way our children and grandchildren will live, as they often emulate or follow family precepts.
It is important to acknowledge and recognize how significant goals are in life, and how fallacious others are, for even those who attain great riches, as far as wealth, may be deficient in ways of appreciating life and how to gain satisfaction that their monetary wealth has no meaning. The person who achieves personal satisfaction and success with his way of life, may be the true winner for obtaining the highest quality of life. Children often follow the characteristics and traits of their parents and will often emulate them in choosing a similar profession or philosophy.
We learn family values and the meaning of morality and values of the American philosophy as expounded in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the good parts of American history as taught in schools, homes, churches, temples, mosques, and by our family and friends. By trying to emulate these high standards, we can hope to improve not only the quality of life but also our meaning of life.
We all share many of the important factors in life, such as courage, hope, compassion, and many of the frustrations and depressions as well. There are many stories that can be told to give relevant examples to the meaning of these factors. By talking about the way we have lived (our life stories), we can give our examples, as well as through our achievements, disappointments, good times, and bad times, as a beacon and touchstone for our family. (See The Life Tapes and Symbolic Immortality Review and Life Tapes)
In part, it is our obligation to instruct, as well as live by example, and to emulate those who have gone before us and have given us their traditions for the meaning of life, and to express high moral principles. It is hoped that through these examples, as well as their examples, our legacy will make us feel like the richest persons in America and will not only be followed and emulated, but enhanced and improved. Each person has so little time and so much to give that one has to concentrate one's efforts to achieve maximum efficiency. At the same time, allow moments for the need to reflect, enjoy, and appreciate all that we have been given, so that we can appreciate life with all its meaning. We hope our legacy will reflect these thoughts, as it is a touchstone for us and for others.
You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken...Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales that may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas that for the most part are the very opposite of those, which we should wish them to have when they grow up?
We cannot...Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable: and therefore, it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts...Then will our youth dwell in the land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair woods, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a pure region, and insensibility draw the soul from the earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.
There can be no nobler training than that.
from Plato's Republic
We live by our own philosophy and by following examples of courageous people. Our acts reflect our personal philosophy, as well as our personal moral standards. There is not a person I know, who does not wish that some of the acts performed, whether it was ill speech of a neighbor or hurting another person, does not wish that he or she could retrace his or her footsteps, and either omit or rectify such an act. This, in part, is what is called moral courage -the ability to do what is right, proper and fair, so that the goals and standards one sets in life can be achieved.
It takes a lot of bravery, endurance, and courage to achieve certain goals or live facing death, whether it is trying to be a hero in a war, when one is fighting for one's country and trying to save oneself as well as the life of a companion; or the courage to enter into a difficult examination or competition; or achieve success in one's career, where one has to take certain gambles, knowing that if one fails, one could lose wealth, or position, or even go into a mental depression due to the failure.
Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics stated that, "We become brave by doing brave acts."
There is often a fork in the pathway of life, where one path may be more difficult, arduous, and dangerous, and the other may be easier but possibly less gratifying if one achieves that goal, or one of lesser value. Decisions have to be made at all crossroads, and one always wishes to make right turns - doing the right thing.
There are times, when under pressure or attack, either in politics, business, or in war, that one has to stand his or her ground, and no matter what the consequences, face the enemy. It is through courage and bravery that we are able to maintain our equanimity and stand for our principles and personal philosophy and not yield to undue pressure and possible failure.
One has to control one's fears and maintain courage that one will not only conquer but also achieve goals. I don't think there is anything as a fearless person, who in the face of danger, could not be a coward, and who performs, in part, because of his training to fight for what he believes in, and who is willing to accept defeat knowing that he has at least done his best. I think it is normal to be afraid, and it is normal to have fear of failure or a penalty that could compromise one's action, and yet with moral fortitude and courage, one can make progress.
Thus, to be brave does not mean one cannot have fear, but one needs to be cautious and not reckless in proceeding, to avoid harm, and maintain the confidence that as one proceeds, the end result can be that which is desired. The lack of courage can be due to an overriding fear or lack of confidence. This form of fear can be overcome with renewed self confidence, support, and self encouragement, and by taking whatever training is necessary to become as proficient as possible to enhance the chances of success.
Courage can also be enhanced by the infectious type of inspiration of nature and of strong leadership, which can inspire people to achieve beyond their normal potential.
In one aspect, as Herman Melville says in Moby Dick, when Starbuck, the chief mate of the Pequod addressed his crew and stated, "I will have no man in my boat, who is not afraid of the whale." He was able to appreciate that there was peril in the mission of harpooning a whale, and that a person who did not have fear could be more dangerous and foolhardy than a person who was a coward, who had overriding fear.
Courage comes in other forms, such as that exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi, who suffered emotional and physical abuse throughout his life, and yet put his life on the line, even allowing himself to lie across a railroad track to stop a train as a means of political/social protest. His method was of non-violent protest, so that public opinion and moral conscience objection could arise against the injustice of the British rule.
In part, courage comes from one's cultural heritage. One brought up in the culture of the American Indians or the tribes of South America has been taught early in life the meaning of duty. A part of duty is not to be afraid and yet have courage to either face fierce animals or be a warrior, who can protect as well as attack. The same examples can be found in most societies.
Thus, courage is not merely a reason to do the right thing or a form of breeding or culture, but it is a part of one's willpower, which can be enhanced by inspiring leaders, or can come from a social philosophy, or from ourselves, or others from a requirement of our social duty to our family - for example, to protect them - or from a requirement of our country for self defense and preservation. This courage is also a matter of confidence and controlling fear, and a wish or need to act and feel brave.
Courage is something that can be ingrained into us from the time of our youth, as it takes courage to go to sleep at night in the dark, as well as courage to take your first ride on a bicycle without the training wheels or even with the training wheels, or to ride a horse. Courage requires the control of fear, so that fear does not hamper the ability to function and contribute to our being brave. It is also one of the factors in the will to live.
Plato said, "Courage is knowing what to fear." Another example is that by Rudyard Kipling, "Brave men and women (as well as cowardly men and women) are not born that way, they become that way through their acts. Here are the acts that make us not just grow up, but grow up well."
- Another example is that of the brave three hundred at the famous battle at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when Xerxes led his Persian army into Greece. Although they were defeated at Thermopylae, the Spartans' heroic stand against overwhelming odds inspired the Greeks in later resistance and forever made Sparta's name synonymous with courage. There was a monument later erected at the pass of Thermopylae, describing the courageous stand of a few in defense of their homeland:
- Pause, Traveler, ere you go your way.
Then tell how Spartans to the last we fought and fell.
Faith is an emotional feeling, reflecting a belief in a discipline or power. It is one of the strong beliefs that people share, which is inherent in everyone. As you go to sleep, you have the faith that you will awaken tomorrow. This is reflected in the poem,
Now, I lay me down to sleep:
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
18th century child's prayer
There are many stories in both the Old and New Testaments concerning faith. For example, in the New Testament, physical healing by Jesus involved faith. It is known that faith can help heal the mind as well as the spirit. In the Twenty-Third Psalm, there is not only devotion and thanksgiving but also a trust in God. It ends, "Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever." That is because, "the Lord is my Shepherd."
Faith is found in many forms. It is a harbor of refuge throughout our lives. Faith is found in all religions, such as the Golden Rule or in Galatians 5:22, 23, when Paul refers to "the fruit of the Spirit" - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. A person without faith or reverence for anything important lacks a moral compass and is adrift. It is an important element for social stability, as well as moral development. For those who feel insecure in their lives, faith can be a way of gaining and maintaining strength.
One of the most difficult tasks in life is that of self-discipline. We all try in so many ways to have good behavior patterns, control anger, envy, and attempt to be exemplary, and, yet, we have many frailties and fallacies. We frequently use the term getting off the wagon, which refers to the time around 1925 during the temperance movement in Boston, when the women of Boston had a wagon and horse they took around town and picked up all the drunks. Thus, the term, getting on the wagon was being thrown onto the wagon to sober up, and when they got off the wagon, they had sobered up and often went back to the bar.
Behavior patterns are often difficult to break or even modify. That is one of the major reasons, for example, that we have so many weight reducing and exercise centers in the United States, because people are always trying to improve their health, and they are willing to pay money and spend time losing weight, even though the success rate is, unfortunately, very small.
One of the best examples of self-discipline is that of Demosthenes, who was a contemporary of Aristotle. He wished to be a great orator but had a major speech defect. Because of his intensity to succeed despite his insufficiency, the story is told by Plutarch, "His inarticulate and stammering pronunciation, he overcame and rendered more distinct by speaking with pebbles in his mouth."
Demosthenes disciplined himself by reciting speeches and verses when he was out of breath or while running a difficult pace. To keep himself studying without interruption, often for two or three months at a time, he would shave one half of his head so that ashamed, he could not go out in public, though he desired to very much.
This is certainly a challenge that each of us has to accept our own deficiencies, or our attempts to improve our way of life, lifestyle, or ourselves, as we keep faith in ourselves while trying to make major efforts in life.
The training of an opera singer, or the discipline of learning an intricate task, such as breaking a diamond (diamond cutting) or learning mathematics can be difficult and requires not only training and determination but great self-discipline.
Compassion involves an emotion that considers the feelings and circumstances of others. It is how we feel towards our fellow men and how we act to support them during difficult times of trial.
Compassion is the feeling of giving of yourself: your warm inner strength, to help sustain another. It can be a sustaining power that helps a loved one or friend acquire the strength to continue to fight in whatever struggle or illness he is undergoing for the preservation of himself. It is the kindness we give not only to humans but also to animals and especially to those we love.
An example is that of Androcles and the lion. Although Androcles was himself cruelly mistreated as a slave, he felf compassion for another's pain, and he was able to put himself in another's shoes and by such an act gained his freedom, through his kindness.
Androcles was a poor Roman slave, whose cruel taskmaster had been so mean to him that he ran away. He grew faint, weak, and ill in the forest, and crept into a cave, where he fell asleep. A great roar awakened him, as a lion had come into the cave, and he thought he was about to be killed and eaten by the lion. When he noted that the lion was limping, he had the courage to hold the lion's paw and took out a sharp thorn that was causing the lion's pain. The lion, in his gratitude, licked the hands and feet of his friend, Androcles, and when night came, the lion slept by his side. The lion brought him food, and the new friends enjoyed brief happiness.
Androcles was captured by Roman soldiers and taken back to Rome, where his punishment was to fight a hungry lion. At the Coliseum, thousands of people came for sport, and Androcles was almost dead when he was brought to the arena, adding to his fear from the roar of the lions. The lion rushed in, saw Androcles, and recognized his old friend, who had befriended him. Androcles put his arms around the lion's neck, and the lion laid down and licked his feet and enjoyed being petted.
No one could understand until Androcles told the story of the thorn in the lion's foot and how he had befriended the lion. He then said, "I am a man, whom no man has befriended. This poor lion alone has been kind to me, and we love each other like brothers." The cry of the people in the Coliseum was, "Live and be free! Live and be free!" Others said, "Let the lion go free too, and give them their liberty." So, they were both set free, and they lived together in Rome for many years.1
The same could be said of the favorite childhood story, Beauty and the Beast.
A final example is King Croesus, a king in Asia and the richest man in the world. He thought wealth could make him happy, and the statement was coined, as rich as Croesus.
Not only did he have a beautiful house and garden, but slaves, and fine clothes, and was both comfortable and content, and thought he was the happiest man in the world. He was visited by Solon, who was traveling through Asia and was known not only as a lawmaker in Athens, but was considered the wisest person in the world. There was a phrase, He is wise as Solon, which was a compliment for someone you thought was very smart.
Croesus invited Solon to dinner and asked him the question, "Who do you think is the happiest man in the world?" After a few minutes of thought, Solon, instead of saying that it was Croesus, said Tellus. When asked why, he told the story of Tellus, who was a man who labored very hard to bring up his children and gave them a good education. When they grew up, he joined the Athenian army and died in defense of his country. Solon then asked, "Can you think of anyone, who is more deserving of true happiness?" With some disappointment, Croesus said, "Tell me who ranks next to Tellus." Solon talked of two young men in Greece, whose father died when they were children and were very poor. Year after year, they worked at hard labor to maintain the house and support their mother, who was in poor health, until she died. The children gave all their love to their native city and served Athens until the time that they died.
Croesus was now not only unhappy but angry and asked the question, "Why do you give no account of me and my wealth and power? Are they nothing? How can you rank these poor people better than me, my wealth, and my power, as I am the richest king in the world?" Solon then answered, "No man can say whether you are happy or not until you die. For no man knows what misfortune may overtake you and what misery may be yours in place of this splendor."
Many years later, King Cyrus marched through country after country, conquering, pillaging, killing and annexing these countries to his Babylonian empire. Because of his wealth and army, King Croesus was able to resist, but then his city was taken, and his palace, orchards, and treasures were destroyed or carried away. As a penalty for his stubbornness and resistance, he was ordered to be made an example of and was taken to the marketplace, where he was to be burned alive. Just before the fire was lit, Croesus, bleeding, bruised, and without a friend to comfort him, remembered the words that Solon had spoken, "No man can say whether you are happy or not until you die."
Croesus moaned, "Oh, Solon!"
King Cyrus was riding by and heard these moans and asked of his soldiers, "Is he saying, Solon, Solon, Solon?" When the answer was, "Yes," he rode up to Croesus and asked why he was calling the name of Solon.
Croesus initially was silent, but with the question being repeated, he told about Solon's visit to his palace a long time ago. The story affected Cyrus deeply, and when he thought of the words, "No one knows what misfortune may overtake you, or what misery may be yours in place of all this splendor," he wondered whether he might also lose his power and be helpless in the midst of enemies. Cyrus then said, "Ought not men to be merciful and kind to those, who are in distress? I will do to Croesus as I would have others do to me." He gave Croesus his freedom and ever after treated him as an honored friend.2
These examples of compassion reflect that kindness is a gift to be given freely, as one wishes another to be kind to you. If one delays or procrastinates the giving of such a gift, one may find it is too late, as life is often too short. Thus, when the opportunity arises to do an act, give a kindness, or show compassion, one should not tarry, or one may have regret and heartache.
In some respects, showing mercy or compassion can make us closer to God through our actions rather than through our words.
Another example would in be Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge falls on his knees with fear after seeing Marley's ghost. Scrooge appreciates why spirits walk on earth and come to us, as a reminder that often the goals one seeks are the illusion. One can be doomed to just wander the world as a witness, which could have been happiness had one seized the opportunity. It is only with repentance that Scrooge finally softens.
It was the apparition of Marley, who held up his hand and warned Scrooge to come no closer, who exerted both surprise and fear in Scrooge, with the appreciation of regret and sorrow for what the future would be, and that he might be wearing chains like Marley's ghost and have no freedom.
It is the compassion that is engendered within us, as well as the pity we have for the suffering around us, and our duty to not only address the problem but also to help solve the problem. Scrooge had not learned enough yet as he closed the window and examined the door by which Marley's ghost came. It was double-locked, as he had done it with his own hands, and the bolts were not disturbed, and he said, "Humbug!" He stopped at the first syllable. From the emotions and fatigue from what he had just undergone, from his glimpse of the invisible world of the hereafter, and from the conversation with the ghost/apparition, he fell into bed without undressing and was instantly asleep.3
There is an even deeper form of compassion that is often felt as part of grief and pain in the loss of a loved one or from another's death. The tragedy of the loss of life was exhibited by Walt Whitman, following the Virginia battle of 1862, when he tended to the wounded of both sides as a volunteer nurse in an Army hospital, and wrote several poems to reflect his thoughts. One was known as Vigil Strange, I Kept on the Field One Night.4 He describes the death of two comrades on the field of battle and his vigil for his slain comrades. In the final two stanzas, he says,
"I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket And buried him where he fell."
This is somewhat similar to Lincoln upon hearing of the Boston widow whose five sons had been killed fighting for the Union. Carl Sandburg described this agonizing letter with the awful implications of the fight for human freedom, which was more poignant than the Gettysburg Address. Sandburg stated, "As though he might be a ship captain at midnight by lantern light, dropping black roses into the immemorial sea for mystic remembrance and consecration." In his letter to Ms. Bixby, Boston, Massachusetts, dated November 21, 1864, Lincoln said, "I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine, which would attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolations that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only with the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be your! s to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."5
This was also reflected in Walt Whitman's poem, O Captain! My Captain!, and the words of Emma Lazarus in her poem, The New Colossus, which describes the Statue of Liberty.
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch
Whose flame is the imprisoned lightning?
And her name, Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows worldwide welcome;
Her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor
That twin cities frame.
Keep ancient lands,
Your storied pomp! she cries
With silent lips:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddles masses
Yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door." 6
1-6- These stories were reported in part by William S. Bennett in The Book of Virtues, 1993, Simon and Shuster.
Reprinted by permission