Beer, Fire, and on Being a Saber-Toothed Tiger’s Dinner


For context, you have to read this post first: Important Things, Useless Things, and Beer.

While it may be true that the big things matter most, the real genius of living with virtue is mastering what those things are.  In the story from my last post, the teacher says that family, health, friends, and favorite passions are the large stones, the things that matter most.  Isn’t that a bit prescriptive?  How does he know, and what gives him the right to tell me what are the “large stones” in my life?

So, telling me that there are things that should be important to me and things that shouldn’t be important is somewhat helpful, although not very specific.  On the other hand telling me what should be important to ME, is quite specific, but a bit presumptuous, no?

But isn’t it just common sense that your family would be one of those big things?  Let’s look a little closer.  What if you have raised your child one way, and she decides to go another?  What if she provides you no respect whatsoever?  As an adult, this descendant of yours has cut you off. Should I force my will upon her?  Do I invite her to Thanksgiving dinner no matter what?  Do I try to establish an intimate father/daughter relationship regardless of her impudence?  What are the factors that led to our estrangement?  Couldn’t they be a series of “little things?”  What if you are a firefighter, and you are called to extinguish a blaze during your own family holiday gathering?  Do you say, “Hey man, family is way more important, you are going to have to find somebody else!”?

As I think about “The Stones in a Jar” story more and more, I am starting to doubt its usefulness.  This poor professor thinks there is a whole jar full of “big things” and “little things.”  He thinks family, health, friends, and passions are large stones.  What he has missed is that these things are actually lumped collections of “little things.”  They are clumps of sand…they are the seemingly unimportant things that together make the whole of my life.  To say that family, friends, health and passions are important is fair, but to call them big things might not be all that helpful advice for leading a virtuous life.

We tend to be like this as humans, we like to categorize things as big things and little things.  I think it was necessary for our survival.  A saber-toothed tiger about to pounce on us is a big thing.  Whether to build a fire out of maple or oak, might be a much smaller thing.  In any case, couldn’t you classify either in the family, friends, health or passions column?  It is very hard to have any of them when you are dinner for a predator.  As far as building that fire, doesn’t that provide welfare for your family/friends, and maybe provide you with the warmth and light to pursue your passion?  Doesn’t building a fire keep you healthy by allowing you to cook, keeping you warm, and warding off saber-toothed tigers?

The devil is in the details, isn’t it?  The fact of the matter is that the “big things” are nothing more than a collection of little things, aren’t they?  In my humble opinion there are very few big things, indeed.  When it comes down to it, the big things (the “large stones”) are the concepts that guide my life and my philosophy.  I can think of three categories of them:

As an alternative story to the “Jar of Stones” (and a much shorter one), maybe we can view things as a series of “clay projects.”  I think maybe the 3 concepts above could represent the water.  With this water, I can mix in the little things, the sand, and create my big things.  When you have water, all you have is water.  When you have sand, all you have is sand.  When you artfully mix them, you can build, mold, fashion many “bigger things” with the clay you’ve formed.

…including family, friends, health, and passions.

Important Things, Useless Things, and Beer



NOTE:  There are several versions of this story.  After researching, I am reasonably confident that the author is unknown (if you think you’ve found one, let me know).  I’m sharing this version because of it’s humorous ending.  I find it delivers an important lesson in the “wisdom to know the difference” train of thought.

“A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty jar and proceeded to fill it with large stones. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. So the professor then picked up a box of small pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the large stones. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. Although with less confidence, they agreed it was.

Full or not?

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous “Yes.” The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

“Now”, said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The large stones are the important things – your family, your children, your health, your friends, your favorite passions – things that, if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car.  The sand is everything else – the small stuff.  If you put the sand into the jar first” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the large stones. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out to dinner. There will always be time to clean the house, and fix the rubbish. Take care of the large stones first, the things that really matter.  Set your priorities. The rest is just sand”.

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented.  The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that, no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of beers.”

There is always room for beer.

My thoughts on this in the next post…but first some “food” for thought (read the caption):

Isn’t there room for cookies, as well?


Acting with Reservation


In my post, Under My Control? The Wisdom to Know the Difference, I wrote of knowing which things are those we cannot change.  While it is extremely helpful to know these things, the fact of the matter is that there is no 100% guarantee that things will turn out the way we think.

It is for this reason, that the Stoic acts with reservation.  I wrote about this before in my “Unless…” entry, but this concept bears repeating.

There will always be “chance” in our future…

To maintain that sense of equanimity in our lives, while still pursuing that which we would like to attain (mainly for the sake of virtue, we hope) we must continue to act fully expecting that the outcome may not be to our liking.

For example, many years ago I was a student pilot in the military.  Without conceit, I can tell you that I was one of the most conscientious students you could find.   During this training there were 3 flying exams (called check rides), and despite my best efforts, I flunked one of them.  I just could not land the airplane that day, and this particular test counted more than any of the others.  In retrospect, the combined conditions of my own skill, flight conditions of the day, and the demands of the course arranged for failure to be my fate.  Of course, this went into my class score, and I will tell you that a great majority of the class did not fail this check ride.  Well, at the time not everybody was getting assigned to fly airplanes after graduation, and of course my class rank was low due to that failed check ride.  So, there was really no way I was going to get an airplane assignment.  In the end, I had to wait 3 years before I would be assigned an airplane.  There was nothing I could do to change this, so I had to put my best effort forward, simply defending what I thought was my mediocre reputation.

Getting ready for another flight…I can fly!

Now, I would not call myself a Stoic at the time.  However, I simply wanted to earn my wings as a pilot, regardless of whether I would fly right away.  As a result, I carried on.  If I were stoically inclined, it would have been helpful to my goal with two things in mind:

  1. Possibly, I might not attain that goal because of much of this outcome is out of my control
  2. I will put my best effort forward simply for the satisfaction that I did so

In the end, I did go on to fly, and every day I am grateful for the opportunities it provided me.  Now that I have embraced the Stoic philosophy, I pursue yet another goal: to spread the ideas of the Stoics to those who need them.  I think they are out there, we shall see.

Until then, I keep staring at my site’s traffic count, and I write for the sake of my own virtue.

A Simply Awesome and Beautiful Passage from “The Meditations”



Sit down. calmly take a few breaths and count to 10.  Now, are you relaxed?  Good!  This is indeed a great meditation.  It is Marcus Aurelius to himself from his “Meditations” Book 4 (I tried to make it less “Roman” while still preserving the beauty with some edits.  Let me know how I did, please):

“Do not waste the remainder of your life in thoughts about others, when you do not refer your thoughts to some object of common utility. For then, you lose the opportunity of doing something else more productive when you have these thoughts. “What is such a person doing and why?  What is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving?”  And whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from the observation of our own rational behavior.

We ought then to check our thoughts for everything that is without a purpose, but most of all the over-curious feeling malignant thoughts; and a man should use himself to think of those things only about which if one should suddenly ask, “What are you thinking about?”  With perfect openness you could, immediately answer, This or That; so that from your words it should be plain that everything in you is simple and benevolent, and such as befits a virtuous social being, and one that cares not for thoughts about pleasure or sensual enjoyments at all, nor has any rivalry or envy and suspicion, or anything else for which you would blush if you should say that you had it in your mind.

For the man who is such and no longer delays being among the number of the best, is like a priest and minister of the gods, using too the deity which is planted within him, which makes the man uncontaminated by pleasure, unharmed by any pain, untouched by any insult, feeling no wrong, a fighter in the noblest fight, one who cannot be overpowered by any passion, dyed deep with justice, accepting with all his soul everything which happens and is assigned to him as his portion; and not often, nor yet without great necessity and for the general interest, imagining what another says, or does, or thinks. For it is only what belongs to himself that he makes the matter for his activity; and he constantly thinks of that which is allotted to himself out of the sum total of things, and he makes his own acts fair, and he is persuaded that his own portion is good. For the lot which is assigned to each man is carried along with him and carries him along with it.

And he remembers also that every rational animal is his kinsman, and that to care for all men is according to man’s nature; and a man should hold on to the opinion not of all, but of those only who confessedly live according to nature. But as to those who do not live this way, he always bears in mind what kind of men they are both at home and from home, both by night and by day, and what they are, and with what men they live an impure life. Accordingly, he does not value at all the praise which comes from such men, since they are not even satisfied with themselves.”

As with all great passages, reading it again will reveal EVEN MORE.

Under My Control? The Wisdom to Know the Difference


“…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference…”  from the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr

I’ve referred to the Serenity Prayer before in this previous post.  It’s the “wisdom to know the difference part,” that I want to reflect on today.  As a practicing Stoic, I know that there are many facets of my life that are not in my control.  But how do I know what is and what isn’t?

In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine says we have a trichotomy of control:  1) things we can control, 2) things we have partial control of, and 3) things we have no control over.  This is a great idea, it simplifies things.  In reality though, I see my life as a series of things that fall somewhere on a continuum of control.  For every aspect of our lives, there is a portion that we have control over, and a portion that we don’t.   For the sake of analogy, while Irvine pictures a 3-position switch, I tend to see a volume switch (a rheostat) that fate uses to adjust the “control level.”

A volume rheostat…more volume, more control?

There is a continuum of control in just about everything in my life.  Whether or not I will overeat for dinner tonight is completely under my command (unless I were held at gunpoint and told to overeat…still in my control, but less so).  In contrast, whether I will be able to afford a fancy dinner next year is partially in my control, but not completely.  I could unexpectedly lose my job, or inflation could take its toll and it would be too expensive.  Also, I might get really sick and have to make medical payments as well.  So many possibilities by then!  How much or how little I can change my destiny depends on an innumerable number of factors.  I don’t know where that volume switch of control will be next year, but I am certain it won’t be set at “completely mine.”  In any case, my entire day, my future, my end…are largely outside of my jurisdiction…much of it is indeed, fate.

This is great and all, but isn’t the key to serenity knowing what is and is not in your control, and how much?  Knowing this is not easy.  Not only does it require effort, but it requires quite a bit of intellect, no?

Which brings me to another point.  The amount of intellect we have to work with is completely out of our control; basically we are stuck with the brain we have.  However, the amount of effort we make to understand the nature of life…well, THAT is completely under our command.

So, the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and cannot change is two-fold.  Our natural intelligence is what we are stuck with, but our choice to exert effort on determining what we can change is ours to make completely.  There is an irony here:  even the “wisdom to know the difference” is both part in/part out of our control.

In any case, determining these things is very important to see things as they are, which I think is essential to living a virtuous life.  So regardless of the intellect I am given, gaining “the wisdom to know the difference” requires effort and time on my part.  I must take time to reflect on what is truly in my control, and I certainly will have to use the utmost of my reasoning abilities to decipher what I CAN control in my life, and what I must file under “acceptance.”  I see no better way to do this than to meditate and reflect on this frequently.