Thought for the Month (Thanks, Epictetus!)

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

“Take care not to casually discuss matters that are of great importance to you with people who are not important to you. Your affairs will become drained of preciousness. This is especially dangerous when you are in the early stages of an undertaking. Most people only know how to respond to an idea by pouncing on its shortfalls rather than identifying its potential merits. Practice self-containment so that your enthusiasm won’t be frittered away.”
– The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness  by Epictetus

Epictetus is my kind of guy. Besides accurately summing up something I think about all the time far better than I could roughly 2,000 years ago, he believed philosophy should serve the practical purpose of leading people to better lives. I love that idea, even if applying a universal definition of “better” to individuals seems inherently problematic.

Even so, I’ll take it. Our passions and enthusiasms are precious things worthy of protection and celebration.



Self Perceptions, Past and Future

A few weeks ago, I read John Tierney’s story “You Won’t Be The Person You Expect To Be.” As a historian, I’m often asked to predict the future of [insert contentious issue of the day] during talks. I generally demur, proclaiming my devotion to the PAST and not to the future, though I certainly believe the past has much to teach us about the present and days to come. Even so, the future feels like scary ground to me. I’ll continue to happily cling to my yellowed papers and remark on how some current event “reminds me of the time…” and then launch into some historical story that I’ll hope you’ll find interesting.

But forget about the fate of the world for a second. How much can I predict about myself? I’d certainly like to think, as we all do (wrongly) according to the article, that I haven’t changed and won’t change all that much as I age.

A few days ago, my mom gave me a paper she found while cleaning my old room. It was a time capsule, written as a class assignment on September 24, 1992, when I was 12 years old. In it, I predicted my future life at 32. I’m only a few hours out of 32 and into 33 as I write this, but to put it bluntly: I was so very wrong. Here we go:

Description of myself in 20 years:

Age: 32

Height: 6’2”

Residence: A house with 700,000 square feet and 23 bedrooms and a pool 8 times the size of the Olympic pool in England.

In twenty years, Erika will… I will be playing 1st chair clarinet for the London Philharmonic and be internationally known. Since I will be filthy rich, the first thing I will buy after my house is a red Miata for my dad and another for my mom. I will also buy my own side paddle boat that my big band will play on.

The whole thing made me laugh. I don’t even recognize the person who wrote this. I do remember wanting to be taller than my dad; I was really into playing the clarinet; and I’m an Anglophile from way back. But the rest? I don’t know. This is not the person I’ve become and it’s hard for me to imagine wanting all this. I’m a bit shorter, my house is many magnitudes of square footage smaller, my boat is a kayak, and I have, alas, put aside my clarinet.

It’s strange to think what assumptions my 12-year-old self had about my path, what I knew about myself then and what I thought would still be (or become) important to my adult self. I can laugh at my greed and materialism (though come on, I was going to give each of my parents a sports car) but there’s also something comforting in seeing how much I’ve grown, changed, and learned in the last 20 years. I’m not at all on the path I predicted, at 12 years old or even 30 years old. And I think that’s pretty great.

So next time anyone asks me to predict the future, I may refer them back to my tween prognostication. I’ll stick to the past, thanks, and leave the predicting to someone else.