Not too long ago I read a passage regarding providence that had been recorded during a lecture with Epictetus…some 2,000 years ago. Over a person’s life they can be told something a thousand times and it never sink in until one out of character repetition. For me, such an instance occurred while reading a short passage. Here is a shortened version of what the philosopher said:
“What do you think Hercules would have been if there had not been such a lion, and hydra, and stag, and boar?…Is it not plain that he would have wrapped himself up and slept?…he would not have been a Hercules…dreaming away all his life in such luxury and ease; and even if he had been one, what would have been the use of him?…Must a man provide for himself such means of exercise, and seek to introduce a lion of some place into his country, and a boar, and a hydra?”
Before I continue, I’ll note that Epictetus was not using the passage above to reason the point I’m soon to make. However, while his lesson was powerful, I felt that there was a more relevant meaning to be taken away from this particular passage. It is one that has to do with existence.
I’ve always been motivated by the promise of achieving higher levels of being. By that I mean that my goals have always been centered on acquiring skills and attributes that would contribute to me becoming a person I believe(d) to be ideal. Whether those goals were fitness, education, skills, or other wisdom and knowledge, I’ve always pictured achievement as a form of existence.
What would happen if I were to achieve one of my end goal ideals? If I were to suddenly become a polyglot billionaire that had profound knowledge and skill in the arts, sciences, mathematics, literature, history and could also bench-press 600lbs (I’m exaggerating…), would existing as so be of any relevance or significance?
While reading the Epictetus passage, what caught me off guard was the idea of being a Hercules without a lion to fight. What difference would there be if I were a polyglot with no one to talk to? Or a billionaire with no purpose or reason by which to put to use or spend my money? In short, even a person who enjoys the most sought after abilities, or unthinkable wealth, can easily be useless in his life.
There is a simple lesson that can be concluded from this. At no level of believed significance does a person’s sole existence hold any meaning or value. For what value is there in a great student with nothing to study? A great athlete with no sport to participate in? Or a great lover with no one to love?
This isn’t meant to be demotivating, or down casting. But instead suggest that a person can only achieve significance in life by that which he is able to apply his resources to – resources being defined as of mind, body, and wealth.
We all have something of an image in our minds that steers us. One of ourselves in the future. Hopefully it is a positive one. What I would suggest is asking yourself whether that image is of you being something or doing something. For if you are not doing, and making use of your strengths and resources, you must learn to take comfort in dreaming only of what you could have become.