In class today I showed the students Alain de Botton’s presentation of the philosophy of Seneca.
I think Seneca (as interpreted by de Botton) is genuinely insightful. The richer and more successful we are, the more prone we are to anger and frustration. Anger is the result of having our expectations frustrated. We want the world to be a certain way, for events to go a particular direction. We see this phenomenon not only on the individual level, but in nations through history. Revolutions tend to come not when things are at their bleakest, when people have the least. Instead, they come when things are looking up. When things improve, those improvements almost never keep pace with expectations of improvement.
Seneca’s solution is to lower our expectations. Well, more than that. We should not just lower our expectations, but grow in pessimism. We should recognize that the world is a hard place. A little imagination every morning (Stoic devotions/quiet time?) will help us think of all manner of things that can go wrong in the day. When we learn to expect bad things and those bad things sometimes don’t happen – hey! we can be happy!
The strategy of low expectations or pessimism makes sense. But I’d rather go another direction. I prefer going with Paul’s “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” Paul would have agreed with Seneca that the world was not necessarily a happy place. Things frequently went wrong. Yet when he’s in prison not knowing whether he’s going to live or die, Paul doesn’t act like Seneca suggest suicide or melancholy. No, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again, I say, rejoice! I can do all things through him who gives me strength. I have learned to be content in any situation, whether well-fed or hungry.”
Paul’s way of life was centered on Jesus. He knew the Jesus way was not the way of easy, dancing happily through the lilies. He knew Jesus had said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” His way of handling the disappointments, sorrows, and sufferings of life was not to practice expecting the bad; it certainly wasn’t to give up and embrace suicide. No, Paul’s way with Jesus was to find the source and purpose of his life in Jesus. As I find my content in Christ I can find a way to not only deal with frustration, but also to channel the anger that comes from the gap between the way things are and the way they should be into something positice.