Friday, August 7, 2015

On Gratefulness

"Are these the only works of Providence within us? What words suffice to praise or set them forth? Had we but understanding, should we ever cease hymning and blessing the Divine Power, both openly and in secret, and telling of His gracious gifts? Whether digging or ploughing or eating, should we not sing the hymn to God:—

Great is God, for that He hath given us such instruments to till the ground withal: Great is God, for that He hath given us hands and the power of swallowing and digesting; of unconsciously growing and breathing while we sleep!

Thus should we ever have sung; yea and this, the grandest and divinest hymn of all:— Great is God, for that He hath given us a mind to apprehend these things, and duly to use them!

What then! seeing that most of you are blinded, should there not be some one to fill this place, and sing the hymn to God on behalf of all men? What else can I that am old and lame do but sing to God? Were I a nightingale, I should do after the manner of a nightingale. Were I a swan, I should do after the manner of a swan. But now, since I am a reasonable being, I must sing to God: that is my work: I do it, nor will I desert this my post, as long as it is granted me to hold it; and upon you too I call to join in this self-same hymn." -Epictetus

While some may cringe at the overtly religious tone, it would be wrong to dismiss this passage. Epictetus is inviting us to live with gratefulness.

The way I've understood it, singing hymns to the divine is a religious person's way to giving thanks to said divine. And Epictetus, despite being lamed in one leg and exiled, still thinks there's reasons to be thankful. To him, it's amazing we have hands to work the earth, that our bodies can consume food, and that even while we sleep, our bodies keep working.

But what he finds most amazing is that we have these minds that can understand these things and know how to use them. Our reasoning mind is the greatest thing we have.

Yet for most of us, we forget just how great our lives are. We get a backache and curse the world that the aspirin isn't instant and that we have backs to hurt. We get upset by traffic jams but forget that it's still a heck of a lot faster than horseback or walking. For every little inconvenience in our lives, we ignore just much a few generations behind us would have loved to have them.

It's hard – perhaps even impossible – to live a forever grateful life. To try to live every instant with the idea that we should be grateful would take a lot of effort. However, as Epictetus seems to point out, most of us live blind to these things, not even trying to find reasons for gratefulness. I know people who complain of lack of money, not because they can afford the things they need with ease, but because they can't afford the things they want with ease. With these kinds of people in the world, even those that take just a little time reflect on the good in their lives is in a better position than most.

Of course, maybe the reason Epictetus seems so adamant in his praise is because he's been in the lowest points of life during his time. As most Stoics know, he was a slave. A highly regarded one, perhaps, but a slave's a slave. He's able to look back onto his life, back to his low points, and rejoice in his current position in life. And he knows that should he ever lose that position, he could survive because he did it before. But that should drive home the point home: hardship isn't something that makes your life miserable. Stoics taught that we're the ones that make ourselves miserable. And we probably do get ourselves to a point where we see the good in the everything. It's just convincing ourselves that it's true.

Of course, this isn't the same as being happy over every little thing that happens to us. Grateful as he may have been, Epictetus would probably have liked the use of both of his legs. But on the things he knew he didn't have control over, well, he just didn't focus on that. Perhaps if he was pushed on the subject, he would have said something like this:

Yes, having the use of both of my legs would have been nice. But I could have just as easily have lost the use of both of them, or even more than just that. But that isn't the fate God gave me. The fate I did get, however, is greater than the loss of my leg. I get to live my life in awe of the world around me. I get to teach others how to live theirs the same. And I'm proof that just because we are lamed, doesn't mean we can't have good lives.

It's all about the perspective. We can all find the bad in everything. It stands to reason we can find the good in everything as well.

Edit; Changed a word. Thanks to Jorden Godbey for pointing it out.

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