Meditation Friday – Making the Crooked Straight

This week, I’ve decided to dip my toes in the wisdom of Seneca again. Some of his words, no matter how many times I’ve read them, never fail to move and inspire me. His perspective on what it means to lead a good life and why it is important, revealed in his Letters to Lucilius, should be read by everyone. At least twice. I always find new lessons in them.

This round, I’ve decided to be a more meticulous, active reader. With a ruler, a pen and some index flags, I’m underlining and flagging everything I want to remember or take to heart. The result? I’m only one quarter of the way through and already the book looks like it’s been attacked by an avid first year philosophy student!

One particular piece of advice I’ve been mulling over is that we should all behave as if a good person of our choosing (a guardian, so to speak) is witnessing our every action. Or, as Seneca puts it: 

‘We need to set our affections on some good man* and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.’ 

*I tend to reinterpret this male worldview; replacing ‘good man’ with ‘good human being’ & ‘he’ with ‘he or she’ 

This is nice, clean advice, if you ask me. It doesn’t need much dissecting in order to see the worthiness of it. And anyone with the ability to think can do it. For me, the difficulty is found in two things; first, knowing a human being with a good enough character to keep ‘constantly before our eyes’, and second, keeping them ‘constantly before our eyes’. The latter is just a matter of practice, prompting and patience, however, choosing who to act as our guardian or model is a slightly mistier arena.  

After some thought, I’ve decided that it’s perfectly OK to choose someone who you do not know in the flesh – a writer, a public figure, a saint, or a Seneca! In fact, I’ve even decided that it’s perfectly OK to choose someone who’s not real; as long as they are given a shape and personality in your mind’s eye and are capable of improving you. This might involve mixing the best elements from different people. My chosen character is such. She seems to amalgamate the Dalai Lama’s serenity, Michelle Obama’s confidence, my aunt Hala’s wit, and bits and pieces from other people. Above all, she shuns what is coarse in favour of the refined and sublime. That is the kind of ideal I always want to point my inner compass towards. 

Seneca thought this subject was important enough to put in a letter, and I’m glad he did. Here’s his conclusion:   

‘There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.’ 

Needless to say, I took out my ruler and underlined it.