Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Would Epictetus Do?

Day 264 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I am still reading Epictetus, because he was a favorite of the Glass family created by J. D. Salinger, and because a former colleague of mine wrote about him in a book review, mentioned in this earlier blog entry, which also, probably by not-so-random coincidence, also mentions Saving Jesus From the Church, by Robin Meyers, a book being read by even more of the local community after his speech last night and workshops this morning (going on even as I write!).

That is, I am reading The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, a new interpretation of Epictetus's manual by Sharon Lebell.  This reads like a self help book; gives me the insight that many, many self-help books are revisiting older, wiser, deeper books of ancient philosophy; and makes Epictetus seems like the ancient Greek Dr. Phil; but it's still, distilled to its essence, good stuff.

It's good in that it helps me review and re-evaluate my life, and ask myself the question, "What would Epictetus do?"

For example, this passage gave me pause:

By considering the big picture, you distinguish yourself from the mere dabbler, the person who plays at things as long as they feel comfortable or interesting.  This is not noble.  Think things through and fully commit!  Otherwise, you will be like a child who sometimes pretends he or she is a wrestler, sometimes a soldier, sometimes a musician, sometimes an actor in a tragedy.

Since I have done a lot of things, and have actually been an actor in a tragedy, I had to think about this for a bit.  (Also paused to consider, "When I was a child, I spake as a child....")  Indeed, in my little essay in Her Circle, I recount all the things I tried in the arts on my way to being a writer, and I became aware that some readers, never having known me or worked with me, might dismiss me as a dabbler or dilettante (those dreaded "d" words)!

But Epictetus would remind me not to be concerned with what others think of me, as that is out of my control (and ignoble).

Unless we fully give ourselves over to our endeavors, we are hollow, superficial people and we never develop our natural gifts.

Again, I pause to remember my father's advice, "You have a responsibility to your talent," very Epictetan, as it turns out, as I began my life in the arts, and both my parents have deep respect for people who nurture and develop their natural gifts, and have provided moral and practical support for their own and other people's children all their adult lives.  What a lucky girl I am to have parents like mine!

We've all known people who, like monkeys, mimic whatever seems novel and flashy at the moment.  But then their enthusiasm and efforts wane; they drop their projects as soon as they become too familiar or demanding.

We probably do all know people like this, and once I got to this passage I found a mix of relief and consternation.  I probably stayed a bit too long at some projects.  Patience is a dubious virtue at times, perhaps, and persistence, too!  If I had been truly responsible to my talent, as my father advised, and realistic in my goals and views, I might have left some of my pursuits sooner!

Be honest with yourself.  Clearly assess your strengths and weaknesses.  Do you have what it takes to compete at this time?

I don't think I have the vocal instrument to be a stage actress.  I worked in small intimate theatres, mostly, hmm, but also school gymnasiums, where my voice carried just fine.  And I could have developed my physical voice, seeking out a voice teacher, et cetera, as my sister did, but I didn't.  I think my inner voice told me otherwise, and I developed my writing voice instead, daily, as I have since childhood.

Likewise, I recognize now, as I did not when starting out, that I do not have the right kind of ambition to succeed as an actress in the put-yourself-out-there world of auditioning and selling oneself.  I am not good at it, and cannot make myself do it.  In fact, I do not have the right kind of ambition to succeed in any conventional endeavor during the time I happen to be living!  I like doing the thing, not selling it, not striving for the next thing.  That may make me childish still, in a way, but, if so, it is also a joyful way to be.

But it doesn't seem as childish, really, as having an enthusiasm and dropping it.  I like doing the work.  In acting and in writing, the work IS play for me, and I love doing it.  An actor friend, now also engaged in a more bookish life, had the insight that he loved rehearsing, doing the work, as well as performing, but that he met many actors who hated rehearsing and just wanted to perform, and, of course, it was rather hard to work with them in rehearsal!!

Different people are made for different things.

I think I am on the right path.  Now and always, or back on the right path.  I loved poetry from childhood on, and learned about it in immersion in dramatic literature as well as other kinds.  Being an actor helped me overcome personal shyness and taught me about what I love.

"Fear not," said Robin Meyers in his speech last night, quoting all the angels and Jesus, the teacher.  I must not fear laying it all out like this.  I must not fear being called, considered, or dismissed as a "dabbler."  I must not fear being called or considered an amateur, another word for dilettante.  An amateur is someone who does it for love.  I am that.  And I am professional in all my pursuits.  I remember that, I know that, and I have worked with "professionals" who merely "phone it in."

(Do not compare yourself to others, Epictetus would here warn.)

I am mostly patient, mostly persistent.  Mostly, with moments of grave doubt, I know what I am.


Kathleen said...

Hmm, somehow I screwed up that "earlier blog entry" link, but there is one, called "The Christ Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest." To be honest about my weaknesses, I am severely technologically challenged.

Nancy Devine said...

oh the glass family. such fond and yet aching memories i have of that bunch.
i do completely believe we have a responsibility to our talents.

Kim said...

My dog, Wolf, was Buddy Glass in another life. Don't publish this one. It's just a private little joke.

Kathleen said...

It's OK. She said I could go ahead and publish her private little joke.

SarahJane said...

Interesting book. I usually start to despair at around page 5 of such books though!

Kathleen said...

Yes, right after I wrote this, I turned the page, and despaired. But I made myself keep reading, and the end of that section got good again. So I alternate between annoyance, despair, and cheerful stoicism. Then I sigh....

seana graham said...

Kathleen, have you ever read Barbara Sher's "Refuse to Choose"? It's an excellent book for anyone who feels like a dabbler to be aware of.

We have our What Would Atticus do? and What Would Scout Do? bumper stickers, and you have Epictetus now. The scary one is the one that Steig Larsson's publisher has out on a black promotional wristband. "What would Lisbeth do?"

The real question I think is, what wouldn't she?

Kathleen said...

Oh, yes, What Would Atticus Do?! That's a good one. Actually, he and Epictetus wouldn't be so far off.

seana graham said...

Right, it would be surprising if Atticus hadn't read Epictetus.

Kathleen said...

And thanks for the other book recommendation, seana. As I was musing, I pondered the "Renaissance Man," able to "dabble" in and excel in many areas, and admired for it. My alma mater, Kenyon College, has a beautiful statue of Renaissance Man and Woman, young healthy, happy people in a joyous back-to-back pose, apart and reaching back to touch fingers. "Of course," as my ever-realistic-as-well-as-nurturing mother pointed out, "there was never such a thing as a Renaissance woman." Times have changed....

seana graham said...

Well, I wouldn't presume to disagree with your mother, but this last year I've been reading a book by Jacques Barzun called From Dawn to Decadence:Five Hundred Years of Western Cultural Life..."and one thing I like about it is his frequent reference to the achievements of women in those times. I think he would say that none of us are really Renaissance Men or Women in the light of their accomplishments.

Kathleen said...

Sounds like a wonderful book. I think my mom meant the cultural/historical term. And, yes, she meant that, in general, women might not have had the same opportunities as men at that time, or the same opportunity to take credit for their accomplishments. But I will keep an eye out for the Barzun book for his take on things!

seana graham said...

No, I don't think they'd be in much disagreement. He is more saying that given some sway as some women of the aristocracy were, they were forces to be reckoned with.