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105 - On Treading Safely - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Remember that being polite costs you nothing while being indifferent may cost you everything.
105 - On Treading Safely - Moral Letters for Modern Times

I take it from your response that you think I was too pessimistic in my recent assessment of our fellow person. “You have exaggerated once again the situation,” you say. “Surely it is not so dangerous to be out among humankind.” I say that I have not been dire enough in my warning if you still doubt the point. I am deadly serious, Deuteros, but my point was not to have you live in fear, nor live in seclusion. Let me thus tell you how you can more safely co-exist in the world.

I told you that people are dangerous, and now let’s consider specifically what makes them dangerous. No doubt you will readily agree that much harm springs from the passionate emotions of others like envy, hatred, and fear. Let me consider them in turn and arm you with your defensive weapons against them.

You do not need much for people to envy you. In fact, when you probe your own feelings, you will be forced to concede that the condition of envy is not brought about by abundance but merely difference. No matter how little a person has, you will be tempted by envy if they have more than you. No matter how much you have, if another has a penny more you will not rest easy. The only way to avoid envy is to avoid scrutiny. If you flaunt your possessions do not expect adoring acclaim, only envy. I do not ask you to become a hermit but give thought to your public displays. The less you show publicly and the more you can content yourself with private display, the safer you will be among your fellows.

Hatred arises so much more easily than we think. It does not take a great provocation to create passionate hatred. Why this should be so I do not know, but we can observe it readily enough. A driver cuts you off on the way to work, and in that moment, you are ready to abandon your commute, your respectable profession, and everything else. For a moment a grim fantasy plays through your head of following that driver to the ends of the earth so you can grind them to dust under your unforgiving boot. And then they raise a hand in acknowledgment that they momentarily inconvenienced you, and all is forgotten.

If a murderous fantasy can be called to life by something as trivial as a few seconds' delay in traffic, believe me when I tell you that to interact with people is to engender hatred. At a minimum, do not deliberately provoke people. I say go a step further and be alert to potential inadvertent slights. Be quick to apologize in all things. Remember that being polite costs you nothing while being indifferent may cost you everything. You can use the words of that great counselor Seneca to guide you. The wise man

will not misinterpret a word or a look; he makes light of all mishaps by interpreting them in a generous way. He does not remember an injury rather than a service.

Now comes fear. There is nothing we will pursue more avidly than attempting to crush out that which strikes fear in us. Observe how one who fears spiders will crush their lives out and spray poison in copious quantities. The response is out of proportion to the threat, but it is the injury to our peace of mind that drives the overkill. When you make someone afraid of you, they may appear subdued. But in their minds, you are a threat to their peaceful existence, and they cannot rest while you are a threat.

How do you avoid being feared? Do not avenge slights. Make light of them. Remember the Buddha’s words:

You throw thorns. Falling in my silence they become flowers.

Call to mind the sound advice of Epictetus:

You will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, ‘It seemed so to him.’

So far I have been talking of the harms others can do to you, and how to arm yourself against these dangers. There is one danger greater than all this that I would have you avoid, and that is the danger you do to yourself. I refer now to the failure to behave honestly and honorably in your actions. Bring to mind the Buddha’s words here as well when he says:

So long as an evil deed has not ripened, the fool thinks it is as sweet as honey. But when the evil deed ripens, the fool comes to grief.

Your misbehavior will arouse in others the emotions we have been discussing. But it will also give rise to painful emotions of your own. Doubt, shame, fear of exposure. All these are a steep price to pay for the temporary satisfaction of giving in to your base desires. When you behave wrongly, the punishment of the state is but confirmation of the sentence you have already laid upon yourself.

So these are your instructions for how to make your way more safely in this world, Deuteros. I sleep more easily knowing that you are well-armed for modern life.

Be well.

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