Ancient Approaches to Adversity

In this post I hope to compare the book of Proverbs to Stoic thought in a way that challenges you to gain self-mastery.

Proverbs:

Pro 16:32  Whoever controls his temper is better than a warrior, and anyone who has control of his spirit is better than someone who captures a city.
Pro 24:5  A wise man is strong, and a knowledgeable man grows in strength.
Pro 24:10-12  If you grow weary when times are troubled, your strength is limited.  (11)  Rescue those who are being led away to death, and save those who stumble toward slaughter.  (12)  If you say, “Look here, we didn’t know about this,” doesn’t God, who examines motives, discern it? Doesn’t the one who guards your soul know about it? Won’t he repay each person according to what he has done?
Pro 24:15-19  Don’t lie in wait like an outlaw to attack where the righteous live;  (16)  for though a righteous man falls seven times, he will rise again, but the wicked stumble into calamity.  (17)  Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls; don’t let yourself be glad when he stumbles.  (18)  Otherwise the LORD will observe and disapprove, and he will turn his anger away from him.  (19)  Don’t be anxious about those who practice evil, and don’t be envious of the wicked.

Marcus Aurelius:

In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast. Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.  –Meditations Book 5

Note the similarities:

  1. A certain frame of mind is considered strength in both schools of thought versus the immediately visible external situation. That frame of mind, in both contexts, is a certain attitude and series of mental habits toward life: “anyone who has control of his spirit is better than someone who captures a city.”
  2. The righteous man (who in Proverbs is always the wise man) gets up when he falls (either morally or in terms of success), just as Aurelius notes, “the obstacle on the road helps us on this road.”
  3. Adversity is seen in both thought schools as an opportunity to show or gain strength.
  4. Both schools of thought relate endurance through trials to being ill-treated by the wicked. Many times other people mess with your life. Aurelius and Solomon both say (whether they lived this or not doesn’t matter) that treating such people with contempt will do no good, but rather when they oppose you, you should simply move on and improve yourself.
  5. Finally, both authors note that doing good to others is part of the motivation for having strength (read: a wise mindset toward adversity) and the purpose for using it.

These authors were both kings but neither of them had the internet, electricity, or an automobile. Setbacks often meant death for people in their respective eras. Yet, both make these claims about adversity.

So, how will you respond to adversity? Will you respond with good-will toward others, a desire to improve, endurance through difficulty, and a non-hater attitude toward those who mess you up? Or will you do the same things that make old people complain about young people in every generation: quit, whine, blame other people, watch t.v., and play on the internet?

Not Quite Academic Appendix/Postscript:
In early Christianity, there is no doubt that the ideas with the highest moral capital came from the teachings of Jesus’ friends and associates (the apostles), Jesus himself, and the Old Testament. This can be verified by a quick perusal of a document called the Didache. But, as time went on Christian teachers made a concerted effort to create or perhaps express a moral system that could accommodate both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity (Meeks 68-69).

Stoicism and Platonism worked very well for the providing the needed ethical language. This is not because the teachings of Jesus weren’t good enough. It is that the teachings of Jesus were intentionally recorded as the paradigmatic statement of the paradigmatic human, but nevertheless in a very specific cultural form. This is not a bad thing. The early Christians saw Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish people. So of course his teachings would be highly particular. Stoicism and Platonism did not provide the ethical ideal or framework, but perhaps the ethical language and practical method of early Christian moral formation. This makes sense, because looking back the conflicts about Jewish ceremonies and the effectiveness of enforcing them upon non-Jewish Christians was a hot-button issue (1 Corinthians 8-10, Romans 14, Galatians, Colossians 2, etc). Thus, the language of Plato and the Stoics (despite their Philosophical differences with the Christians) became fairly standard.

Christians today could learn a lot not only from Proverbs, but also from the Stoics. Just because the early Christians did does not obligate anybody to do so, but their habits may have been wise and worthy of emulation.

Meeks, Wayne A, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993)

Meditations upon Proverbs 14:4

Pro 14:4 Where there are no oxen, the barn is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.

This particular Proverb has a pretty obvious meaning:

There might are less chores with less tools, but with well managed tools comes greater success.

I can think of several applications of this Proverb to contemporary existence:

  1. If you do not own a lawn mower, you’ll have less maintenance, but you’ll have to pay more in the long run for people to do your yard.
  2. If you do not own a tools, then you won’t have to organize them. There will be no need to put up your tools, have a sweet tool box, or to oil them. But if you have one it will be cheaper to repair your house.
  3. Any tools that improve your productivity should be cared for just like the oxen barn. A barn full of oxen, left unattended, will eventually smell like what fills it. Similarly, a computer that is not properly maintained, a car not properly tuned up, or a guitar not properly stored will all let you down more frequently than the alternative. But if you do not have these tools, then you cannot have the blessings that come with them.
  4. If less people go to your church, you’ll have less problems. But conversely, potentially less of the work of the gospel will be accomplished.
  5. Your body will eventually fall apart, but it will happen much faster without use! Put the work of taking care of it into practice and it will likely work much longer for you.

For me the takeaways from this particular Proverb have been:

  1. Keep my garage clean and organized.
  2. Stop borrowing my friend’s calculator.
  3. Keep my books in alphabetical order.

What about you?

Meditations Upon Proverbs 17:6

New American Standard Bible  Proverbs 17:6 Grandchildren are the crown of old men, And the glory of sons is their fathers.

Jewish Publication Society  Proverbs 17:6 Grandchildren are the crown of their elders, And the glory of children is their parents.

This proverb struck me, especially because of the second part.

Grandchildren and Grandparents

One of the things I’ve heard several parents say to their parents is, “You were always more strict with us than with my kids.” I think this proverb is noting that this is the case. There is also a note of glory in living long enough to see your children raise the next generation.

Children and Parents

The Hebrew of the second clause literally translates, “the beauty of sons are their fathers.” It obviously applies to all children and parents as which is made explicit in the JPS translation.

I suspect, as with most Proverbs, this is meant to take us in several directions. It certainly applies to me as a teacher, but only indirectly. I’m no parent. So don’t see this as me telling anybody how to raise their children. It’s me trying to think about how this Proverb was meant to be read. So, here is what I think it could mean:

  1. The distinct reputation of a young man in an ancient tribe or a modern small town would be connected to the deeds of his father. So his beauty/glory would be connected to whatever people knew his daddy for. If you want to give your child a good reputation in the world, get a good reputation for yourself.
  2. The thing that a young man will consider beautiful, praiseworthy, or glorious will be what he sees in his dad. Thus, the way a father lives will be a major factor in what his children grow up to value. So, if you want to instill faithfulness to the Lord and love of neighbor in your children, that had better be your own habit. If you want your kiddos to exercise, you’d better exercise. If you want your children to study, you’d better hit the books in front of them. If you’re a Christian, especially study the Bible with them.  Don’t just read it to them, but teach them how to ask questions about its meaning, how to find answers in the text, how to use other resources to understand it, and how to apply it to life.
  3. Finally, children are often enamored of their dad and his prowess. “My dad could beat up your dad.” In this case, if you’re a father, then your job is not only to exemplify virtue to your children but live so that when they get older they won’t become disillusioned by the real stories about you. Because, if it is true that your children find their glory/beauty in you, then don’t let them find out it was purely a survival mechanism for their childhood. Instead, make sure your life matches the instinctual hype.

Again, these are apparent applications of the Proverb, not necessarily instructions for you. Certainly these applications work for me as a teacher. When I see one of my students teach somebody else how to do mathematics or how to write well, I feel a deep swell of pride. Similarly, when I do sports against my students, I try to dominate (with varying degrees of success). I cite sources in speeches and lecture handouts. People will emulate competence if it is set before them as a valuable attainment.

Growth and Biblical Wisdom

Lately, my reading interests have been focused upon brain development, motivation, and expertise. This is for two reasons:

  1. I want to be a better teacher
  2. I want to set myself up for success now that I’m switching fields in a rather radical way (note: Greek and Hebrew really are harder than math and science. Any young pastor could go to school for engineering or trade school for instrumentation to make the switch to bi-vocational ministry if said pastor really did learn Greek and Hebrew rather than just taking easy classes in the seminary.).

Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden observe in an article about self-theories that people have two strategies for self-esteem repair after failure that are based upon two theories of the self (Dweck, 130-131).

The Self Theories:

  1. Entity theory:
    Entity theory is the theory that all of your personal traits are fixed in place.
  2. Incremental Theory:
    The incremental theory of the self is the theory that no matter who you are, your qualities and abilities can be improved upon.

Two strategies of self-esteem repair:

  1. Fixed/Static View
    It is often found that those who hold to the entity theory, because of the assumption that change is impossible, also have a static view of self-esteem repair. These people repair their self-esteem by avoidance of their flaws by only practicing skills they excel at. They often do so at an easy difficulty level. Adherents to this self-theory also utilize comparison of their performance to examples who performed even more poorly than themselves.
  2. Growth View
    Similarly, those who hold to the incremental self-theory, because of the assumption that change is possible, they adopt a growth perspective on self-esteem repair. Such persons use strategies like examination of deficits and practicing unattained skills.  They are also more likely to utilize comparison of personal performance to those who performed even better to understand why they succeeded.

Can you guess which self-theory and which strategies tended to correlate with people who succeed? View and strategy: the incremental theory and the growth view. Correlation does not mean causation, but trying to correlate with people who succeed at something is not a bad idea.

Interestingly, in the book of Proverbs, the self-theory assumed by the author is the incremental theory. The author assumes that people can change:

Pro 8:1-5 ESV  Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?  (2)  On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  (3)  beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:  (4)  “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man.  (5)  O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense.

And as one would expect from somebody who holds the incremental view, the author of Proverbs recommends responding to personal failures and challenges with a growth strategy:

  1. Pro 9:8b-9a Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he will grow wiser.
  2. Pro 15:5  A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
  3. Pro 15:12  A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.
  4. Pro 15:32  Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

The whole book basically indicates that one of the main differences between the wise and the unwise is that the wise are willing to face correction and improve. They admit their flaws and errors. They do so whether the flaws pertain to morality, character, knowledge, skill, or anything else.

Conclusion

Learning to change our perspective on failures and internal shame is very difficult. We often feel painfully ashamed of failures, mistakes, and sins. This shame can paralyze us into being unable to admit fault. It can even force us into hiding our flaws and dwelling only on our positive traits and thus can prevent change. It is all the better to admit personal failures of morals, knowledge, and skill. Fessing up to oneself, to God, and perhaps in certain cases, to other people can be a liberating experience. In so doing, shame can become the sort of sorrow that leads to repentance and personal transformation. One good article on the subject can be found here: Why I Like When Other Men Make Me Feel Bad About Myself.

Works Cited:

Andrew J Elliot and Carol S Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).

Appendix:

Though the author of Proverbs assumes that you and I can change, he is a realist. You and I have all known people that we worry about because they keep making bad decisions. The fear is that eventually it might be too late to change. Proverbs does notice that some people will want to change their habits at the last minute before a calamity. They procrastinate. They hope to perhaps utilizing a montage strategy. “Oh, I messed around all year and have to make a 100 on the final and only have 8 hours to study…wisdom come save me with clips of fun, hard work, and sweet music!” Kind of like in Rocky, Revenge of the Nerds, the Muppets Movie, and Mulan:

Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, is personified as a cosmically powerful female prophet who represents the highest aspirations of human motherhood, the ultimate wife, and the most wise sister a young man could have. Young men typically love women, this is probably why the literary device is used. The book is written for young men, but it clearly applies to women as well. Anyway, here is what Lady Wisdom says after being ignored until the last minute before a disaster:

Pro 1:24-27  Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,  (25)  because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,  (26)  I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you,  (27)  when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

If you refuse to change your character long enough, you won’t be able to suddenly make the necessary repairs in order to succeed. I tried this in Hebrew as an undergrad. You cannot study at the last minute for Hebrew and succeed.

Luck, Ministry, the Realities of the Market, and Money

I don’t believe in luck. I think it is a stupid concept most of the time. Most people use the word to indicate that they wish that things would work out for somebody in a positive way. For instance, you may have heard somebody say, “Good luck!” In that respect it’s fine. In the respect of believing that some people get a statistically improbably amount of assistance in life and others receive a similar amount of opposition because of weird moral forces seems bogus to me. If I were a luck believing man, though, I would never gamble (which I don’t) and I certainly would not bet on me.

In the past several years of my life, here are some coincidences that I have experienced:

  1. I had elbow surgery to repair damage caused by a genetic bone disorder and the fixator device that was used totally malfunctioned and I now have very painful elbow arthritis because of it.
  2. In high school, my new truck broke down on a bridge due to an electrical systems failure and I was rear-ended by a guy driving about 60mph, who “didn’t notice me stopped.” The truck was totaled. Note: the hazard lights were still functioning after the wreck, indicating that everything was kosher. The police officer refused to believe I was stopped when the accident occurred. He did not write the other man a ticket. Thus, I was sued for 32,000 dollars. Thankfully my insurance, which tripled in price, found me a good defense attorney .
  3. My high-school counselor forgot to send my transcripts and I ended up rejected from all of the schools to which I had applied.
  4. During knee surgery, the doctor accidentally cut an artery in my leg and I instantly became the only person with 5% body fat to ever need emergency bypass surgery and stay in the cardiac ICU for 5 days.
  5. I saved up for a year in college so that I could have one very busy semester without working (because the upcoming schedule just made that seem sensible) and during that period my truck broke down and depleted my finances while I fixed it and I had too many classes for any employer to hire me, but the truck broke after the drop date for my courses.
  6. The same truck literally burst into flames right before the recall notice came in the mail indicating that it was in danger of bursting into flames.
  7. I chose the grad school I attended in order to take classes under two professors who both left after I had only finished half of my program (the prerequisites for their classes). I found myself unqualified for every doctoral program in my field when I finished because none of the courses I needed were available. I did manage to finish by substituting intro courses in various subjects for the advanced courses I needed.
  8. I got a public school math teacher certification in order to make more money. When I finished it, I had several principals who wished to hire me. When I literally had the pick of schools after putting in my applications, the state of Texas approved of a massive budget cut (4 billion dollars). Everybody for whom I was a highly desired applicant then told me that they were struggling to keep their current staff and would be unable to hire me. Though this sucked, being a public school teacher probably would have been awful too.
  9. The private school I work for hired me at the beginning of what was described to me as a five year plan to have competitive salary with local public schools. This is year five and my salary, had I taken a full time job there, would have been only slightly higher than when I was hired. This is not a complaint about my employer. It is just an observation that somebody’s financial projections persuaded me to work there and due to factors beyond my capacity to predict at the time, they did not come true.
  10. I intentionally took a part time job at the school so that I could pursue an engineering degree. During this semester my wife’s job increased her hours in a fashion that could only be described as immoral. Due to the nature of her work, this is not something she can physically sustain. The problem is that I took such a pay cut that there is no way we could afford for her to quit and look for new work without eating up our savings. She’ll have to quit, and I am not sure what we’ll do.

Anyhow, I’m going to have to try getting some sort of job that won’t laugh at my two Bible degrees, which is not easy. While I was hoping for a teaching job, if I include online applications and the dozens of in person applications I filed, I applied for hundreds of jobs while I mowed yards for a living. Only one of them called me back (a managerial position at a dept. store) after I had been a teacher for a whole year.

There is a moral to this story. It isn’t just some whiny poor-me tale. Here it is:

“The results in this paper strongly support the hypothesis that graduating from college in a bad economy has a long-run, negative impact onwages. I also find a negative effect on occupational attainment and slight increases in both educational attainment and tenure for those who graduate in worse national economies.” Lisa B. Kahn, “The Long-Term Labor Market Consequences of Graduating from College in a Bad Economy,” Labour Economics 17, no. 2 (2010): 312

I essentially graduated at the wrong time (2008) and in the wrong field (Bible). The “full-time ministry” paradigm is dying in local churches in the United States. Nobody told us this when we were in Bible college, probably because nobody who would have told us knew. The paradigm can be salvaged in individual cases, but the reality is that cases of full time pastor positions are dwindling (the author of the linked article misunderstands the very evidence he cites in his article) in several denominations.

So, anyway, you never know what random stuff will come your way. For instance, while I was writing this very article, my wife and I received an email that her healthcare plan would be discontinued due to the Affordable Care Act. Similarly priced plans appear to offer only a fraction of the coverage and plans that offer similar coverage are literally multiple times more expensive. I still don’t have insurance because my bone disorder makes it prohibitively expensive. When I tried to apply for it last year it was like 300 bucks a month for a minimal coverage plan. When I get sick I follow this protocol: drink coffee, power through it, and hope I’m not contagious.

If you feel called to the ministry, then learn to do something else first. Jesus did (carpentry/rock working), Paul did (leather worker), many of the ancient philosophers did (teacher, leather workers, pottery makers, etc), and most of the prophets did. If you don’t do it before seminary or Bible college you’ll wish you did because once you’re married and can no longer in good conscience risk becoming homeless to improve your lot in life, then you’ll get stuck.