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050 - On Those Who Will Not See - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Many people are the architects of their own misery, never realizing that with similar effort and much less worry they could just as easily be about the building of a personal paradise.
Forested mountainous region - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

As if I needed yet another reminder that time is not one of the things given to humankind to control, I received your letter only today, though you mailed it many weeks ago. Is it COVID lockdowns that kept your missive locked in a dormant mailroom? Was it a cancelled flight that kept your letter grounded and prevented it from flying to me with its usual dispatch? Or perhaps it was an overfull shipping container plugging the Suez canal that kept your words from me, just as they kept shopfuls of sneakers and cheap cotton t-shirts from the shelves.

Although your words were missing in action for months, I trust that you have not been idle yourself, but have been about the business of bettering yourself. And what better way to do this than by remembering that the business of others troubling you is really just you causing trouble for yourself. “What can you mean?” you say, “I am not causing others to behave the way they do. Should I now take credit for the sun setting and the moon rising?” I would grant few people agency over their own actions, Deuteros, let alone the actions of others.

No, what I refer to is how you respond to what happens, for this is the one thing that is always within your control. Many people are the architects of their own misery, never realizing that with similar effort and much less worry they could just as easily be about the building of a personal paradise. What Plutarch wrote of Cicero in “The Parallel Lives” applies equally to many people today:

He was prevented by many public affairs which were contrary to his wishes, and by many private troubles, most of which seem to have been of his own choosing.

We can wish for what we have not and so make ourselves unhappy, and choose to consume our particular poison and so make ourselves unwell. But who says we can only wish for and choose that which makes us miserable and sick? I grant you full agency over your thoughts, my dear Deuteros, and I urge you to see clearly and use your power wisely.

Seeing clearly is something that the ancient philosophers did surprisingly well, when one considers that they had no benefit of corrective lenses, not to mention the corrective surgery, that we take for granted today. Perfect eyesight is available to us today in the form of laser eye surgery, seamless bifocals, and daily disposable contact lenses. We are not to be without our prescription, be it in our sunglasses or in our specially formulated blue-phase shifting glasses designed for viewing computer screens. If only our vision could be as clear as our eyesight.

For all of our 20-20 eyesight, I would say that we are more blind than ever to what is truly important. We run after riches, and we tell ourselves that we cannot get by on anything less. Then there are the pursuits we busy ourselves in. The farther you travel from the countryside, the less likely you are to find people who work with their hands. You may create virtual worlds in your coding, and be transported to new heights on the backs of unicorns. But if you have lost thereby the simple pleasure of digging a furrow in the dirt, planting a seed, and nurturing it to flower and eventually fruit, you are less attached to the ways of the real world in a materially important way.

“Must I grow my own crops to be well fed,” I hear you ask, “and travel about on horses shod by my own blackened hands to travel well?” This is not my message. If you would be satisfied with a day’s labor, ask first if you have satisfied anyone’s needs beyond your own, and then what harm you have wrought in bringing about your ends. Have you made people see and appreciate their lives more clearly by devising new methods to keep their faces planted to their screens? Have you made people see and understand their civic duties with more fidelity by rewriting history to suit a new narrative of systemic oppression? Does manipulating people to part with their money with the twaddle you call marketing bring into sharp relief that their happiness lies not in things, or are you throwing sand in their eyes?

“We are just giving people what they want,” the professional classes cry. “And if we were not selling things of value, why are we being showered with money for our efforts?” If there was ever a false indicator, it would be to follow the flow of money. When you spend your day snuffing out one after another each of the faint lights that line the path to reason, do not then express wonder that all now wander aimlessly in the dark. When with your distractions you poke a stick in the eye of mankind’s ability to sit quietly in contemplation, I say you are no blindfolded judge of people’s natural desire to see.

But though all voices are clamoring for our attention, and all hands are pushing us steadily away from our desired course, still we have it within our powers to see clearly. Pull away the blinders from your eyes, for no one holds them to your head but yourself. Free yourself of the burden of doing what others do just because they do it, and you become free to see the way back to the path of reason.

Be well.

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