I believe that the best advice I’ve ever had was from the Roman philosopher Epictetus, who said that we cannot make others admire us — we must look to the curing of ourselves. I believe it was a folly and distraction to spend much of my life ignoring the first precept of that advice, and spend not enough time and effort in fulfilling the second, the duty to cure myself.
I believe that fame and fortune are as irrelevant to our happiness as chasing a pig around just for fun, though the chase in time becomes tiresome work. I believe that every ambition creates its counter-force in opposition, be it stubborn editors or snobbish critics for artists of every genre. I believe advice nearly as valuable as that of Epictetus was given me by the great poet William Stafford, who said that in any endeavor it is wise to lower our standards.
I believe that lowering the bar is almost always a good decision. When a clerk in a store recently wished me a perfect day as I left, I turned back and replied, “Just a so-so day, please. It’ll never be perfect. After all, the war isn’t over.” Deconstructed,
my reply meant that you could call any day perfect that does not include a catastrophe, whether it is the death of a child, a mate or a friend, or perhaps a hurricane or a bombing, wherever it is.
I’d rather enjoy the greater security of a just so-so day, with your chief pleasures of contemplation, creativity of any kind, and the noticing of the beauty wherever we behold it. Any day empty of catastrophe, provoking our ripe expectancy for sorrow is worthy of great gratitude. But it is assuredly no comfort to know that ecological degradation and the carnage of war are taking place, whether we are its current victims or not.
I have learned to live in the present, thus obeying Thoreau’s injunction to “Simplify! Simplify.’ It makes life so much simpler not to be carrying the weight of both past and future as well as this minute.
As a poet I once read to a group of mentally ill people in a hospital, and I asked them what their greatest fear was. One man was still afraid of his father, as if he were living a traumatic event that had happened sixty years before. A woman was terribly afraid of flying in an airplane. I reminded the man that the event was long ago. But of course, I was wrong, for he still carried the terrifying memory of that past incident with him that day of my visit. I asked the woman when she next planned to take an airplane trip. “Oh, never,” she said, “why would I do that?” But she carried the future with her, making her tremble at thought of it. Mental health is, I would assert, is living in the present, casting out those demons fore and aft, the past and future.
I believe that my inferiority complex is one of my most valuable assets because it has kept me working to justify my existence. It has been a painful journey, but early success would have ruined me, just as I have seen its effect on others. Thank you, God, for not having served my earlier ambitions. You knew where I was going long before I did.
But at last the path found me. Thanks! I believe you had something to do with it all.
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