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Monday, May 30, 2022
Today is Memorial Day here in the United States as America honors its fallen. I had the pleasure to join the City of Laguna Niguel's Memorial Day ceremony. As I was reflecting upon it all, the admonition from Marcus Aurelius was ever so present in my mind as I picked this up from a guest columnist at the Bulwark:
In the summer of 2004, as a young naval lieutenant and aide-de-camp to a three-star general, I went to Iraq just as a wave of insurgent violence had begun to recede. The general wanted to talk to diplomatic and military leaders, special forces, and intelligence personnel to get a firsthand account of how our agency’s support had fared in the heat of battle. I remember listening in awe to Marines recounting their armed procession into Fallujah. I remember being stunned by the lush green of the Iraqi landscape as we coptered around in a Black Hawk convoy. And I remember the attack.
Staggered explosions seemed to come from nowhere and from every direction all at once, each followed by another, and another. I knew each successive cluster of blasts was closer than the one before—not from how they sounded, but from how their percussive effects felt different on the bone.
When the booms started, the general’s entourage had already strapped into the back of a cargo plane to begin the long journey home. We were still on edge from the corkscrew landing on arrival to this small outpost north of Baghdad hours earlier. So, when our departing plane abruptly shut off, and when security forces rushed on and tossed us in the back of a pickup truck, and when we sped across the airfield with insurgents lobbing death in our direction, I admit that I thought the worst was imminent and inevitable. I looked at everyone stuffed in the bed of that truck with me and thought, “these are the men I may die with.”
Every Memorial Day, I recall that day and that feeling. Many men and women who have experienced some version of this harrowing epiphany did so in their final moments of life. We remember and honor their sacrifice on this the most sacred day of the American civic calendar.
I used to believe that remembering this sacrifice was the most powerful and respectful thing we could do. At Gettysburg in 1863, a resolute Abraham Lincoln commemorated those who had given their lives to reunify the country by declaring the world “can never forget what they did here.” And at Arlington Cemetery eight years later, Frederick Douglass remarked that “no loftier tribute can be paid” to those buried there than this simple epitaph: “They died for their country.” Remembering is how we give new life to those who have passed and how we validate the unfinished work for which they died. And in our need to find meaning and purpose in tragedy, we designate dying in the service of our country as an unassailable act of civic virtue. This helps us pluck a thing of beauty from the fields of loss.
In the back of that pickup truck on that airfield in Iraq, I looked at the men I would be remembered alongside. Perhaps on Memorial Day the following year—our names lifted from marble engravings and newspaper print—it would be said that we, as Lincoln extolled, “gave our last full measure of devotion.” It would be said that we were courageous Americans now owed a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. It would be said that we died for our country.
An insight dawned on me then that I have only recently begun to truly understand: Our country is something we each believed in as well as a thing on which we disagreed. Equality and liberty and justice define my America, just as they do theirs, but my version of equality and liberty and justice—and how we can best achieve those ideals—is unquestionably different from theirs.
How could the general, a working-class white kid from Pittsburgh, know anything of my particular America, which traces to black sharecropping grandparents hounded at every turn by a volatile Jim Crow? What did I—with my Huxtable-style middle class Southern upbringing lathered with the Sunday theatrics of the black Baptist church—know of his Irish American community of Catholic steelworkers, VFW halls, and boys in crew cuts and pompadours? And yet here we both were, volunteers in the armed forces in a faraway land, shoulder to shoulder, prepared to die—him for his country, me for mine, and us for ours.
The men and women we honor on Memorial Day fought for different reasons, gave their lives for different things. This assembly of souls did not rush into battle with a copy of the Constitution snug in every breast pocket, all of them compelled to fight by an identical love for a single, shared understanding of democracy and liberty. Some fought because they wanted to protect their homes from plunder. Some fought because they were conscripted and had little choice in the matter. Some fought because that is what was expected of them, or because it provided means for their families. And some fought as an explicit claim on their place in America—a place that had been denied them by the very nation whose uniform they wore with pride.
These realities do not detract from their ultimate acts of altruism. There is no need to mythologize their service or sacrifice. Remembrance does not require it, and honor refuses it. More importantly, such mythmaking obscures the intrinsically American thing that gives Memorial Day its meaning.
No matter the rationale for donning the cloth of the nation and engaging in the terrible trial, those who serve soon learn that their ability to behold the America they are fighting to preserve—or to create—is dependent on the man or woman beside them in foxholes, cockpits, sandy beach charges, and the bellies of ships. The black soldier knows any shot at emancipation or voting rights or freedom from oppression requires the bravery of the white airman who may be fighting to bring economic opportunity back to her rural hometown, the courage of the first-generation immigrant sailor who is pursuing citizenship, and the resolve of the Native American Marine seeking restoration of ancestral lands. The things that each one wants are often perceived as threatening to the desires of the others. We do not have to guess at this. The story of America is in large part an anthology of domestic fights, often along racial and ethnic lines, about citizenship, democracy, rights, property, and access to opportunity.
And yet when Lincoln looked out over Gettysburg and when Douglass surveyed Arlington Cemetery, Union soldiers who fought for different things are buried alongside one another—resting eternally with each other though they did not share the exact vision for a more perfect Union.
Memorial Day reminds us that it is possible to sacrifice for people you disagree with, and that unity does not require total alignment. The survival of America depends on the idea that the ideologically, racially, and culturally diverse groups that compose our nation can stand together in solidarity without surrendering their histories or identities. This proposition has been sorely tested—state-sanctioned injustice and vigilante violence have often attended American democracy. Memorial Day, however, is a chance to honor those who demonstrated the feasibility of the American idea, who have personified it in some measure, and who gave their lives in service of it.
But remembering, by itself, is not enough. We must live out the lesson of those we have lost, and this requires that we work with those we disagree with to negotiate who we will be as a nation. Douglass at Arlington paid homage to “the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm” between what the nation was and what the nation could be if it lived up to its ideals. The markers in that cemetery and in stone tributes around the world represent the price paid for our space for deliberation today. They commemorate those who gave us their last breath so that America might have more room to breathe.
In that Iraqi summer of 2004, the worst did not happen to us in the careening pickup truck. We made it to the bunker, where men and women in uniform—of every race and ethnicity, from all corners of the country—already lined the long corridor where they were waiting out the hail of bombs outside. With one ear to the banter characteristic of those on deployment together, though it was uncharacteristically hushed in this case out of respect for the three-star general nearby, I learned that my life-changing moment on the airfield was just another Tuesday afternoon for them. And I learned that the danger had felt closer than it actually was.
Though death may not have been as near as I’d imagined, it had gotten close enough to make eye contact for a few seconds. Thankfully, it blinked. Hours later, the all-clear was given and our trip ended without further incident.
Today, I have traded in the uniform for civilian clothes, and my fight for democracy continues on the deeply polarized domestic front. This fight is only possible because for nearly two and half centuries, Americans gave their lives to give the nation the most precious gift possible: more time.
Those who died in the Revolutionary War, including enslaved black people, established a new nation that fell drastically short of the principles upon which they were told it was founded—but they created space and time for the nation to reconcile its errors. Those who died in the Civil War to reunify the country and abolish slavery in the process extended the space and time we had to figure out if a multiracial liberal democracy was possible, even though the gift was soon hijacked by racism and xenophobia. The half-million American deaths in World Wars I and II bought America yet more time. And while we have not always used this time wisely or honorably, we have not entirely wasted it. The Union is better today than it was at its inception because of the time that has been purchased on our behalf by the sacrifices of those who knew more time was needed.
But many anti-democratic actors are trying to hurry America back to a more illiberal and intolerant past. Some suggest that the only way we can love America is if we all revere it unconditionally and experience it in the same way— that we must not gaze at the ugliness in our history or critique the policies obsessed with perpetuating inequality for fear that pointing out hypocrisy and imperfections will cause us not to love our country. Others, meanwhile, insist that to celebrate the nation’s undeniable progress since its inception is to give short shrift to the very real problems and disagreements that continue to plague us.
Memorial Day is a reminder that we do not have to give in to either side. The men and women who died serving our country made it possible for us to continue the process of determining what our country should be. In no small measure, the American experiment continues because of those we honor on Memorial Day; the project is possible because of them.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln observed, “we cannot consecrate this ground; the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” We should recognize their consecration, not only of battlefields but of the promise of America. And while we who are alive have not matched their sacrifice, we must do our best not to squander it.
Friday, May 20, 2022
Saturday, May 14, 2022
Monday, May 9, 2022
I was in the community this week visiting a gem in our midst in Southern California: The Huntington Library. As I worked away on commitments for the Daily Outsider, I decided to share this courtesy the man behind The Daily Stoic, Ryan Halliday:
When I was 18 years old, I was a research assistant to Robert Greene. My job was to find stories he could use in his writing. Nearly seventeen years later, I still use so much of what Robert taught me about finding great stories in researching for my own writing. But the gift has been less in how it has helped me professionally, and more in how it has helped me personally.
As I would learn much later, Robert was teaching me how to find what the ancient Greeks called a chreia: “an exemplary story about a famous person, often culminating in a memorable utterance,” as Gregory Hays has defined it. “Learning by precepts is the long way around,” Seneca wrote. “The quick and effective way is to learn by example.” In this article, I thought I would share a handful of my favorite stories I have found over the years—ones that have stuck with me and that I think t will have a lasting impact on your life.
The writers Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) were at a glamorous party outside New York City. Standing in the palatial second home of the billionaire host, Vonnegut began to needle his friend. “Joe,” he said, “how does it feel that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel has earned in its entire history?”
“I’ve got something he can never have,” Heller replied.
“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
How you do anything is how you do everything.
On the campaign trail, a heckler once tried to embarrass President Andrew Johnson by shouting about his working-class credentials. Johnson replied without breaking stride: “That does not disconcert me in the least; for when I used to be a tailor I had the reputation of being a good one, and making close fits, always punctual with my customers, and always did good work.”
Anything you do well is noble, no matter how humble.
The dancer Martha Graham would tell a story about her vaudeville days, when she was followed by a bird act. When the music went on the white cockatoos, trained by years of reinforcement and ritual, would become almost hysterical with excitement, clawing and beating at the cage until they go on stage and perform. “Birds, damnit, birds!,” she would yell at students who didn’t give their full commitment. The birds can’t want it more than you can.
As they say in the Army, “You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.”
Always stay a student.
Late in his reign, a friend stopped Marcus Aurelius as he was leaving the palace, carrying a stack of books. Finding this to be a surprising sight, the man asked where Marcus was going. He was off to attend a lecture on Stoicism, he said, for “learning is a good thing, even for one who is growing old. From Sextus the philosopher I shall learn what I do not yet know.”
That’s right, even as the most powerful man in the world, Marcus was still taking up his books and heading to class.
It’s harder to be kind than clever.
When he was a young boy, Jeff Bezos was with his grandparents, both of whom were smokers. Bezos had recently heard an anti-smoking PSA on the radio that explained how many minutes each cigarette takes off a person’s lifespan. And so, sitting there in the backseat, like a typical precocious kid, he put his math skills and this new knowledge to work and proudly explained to his grandmother, as she puffed away, “You’ve lost nine years of your life, Grandma!”
The typical response to this kind of innocent cheekiness is to pat the child on the head and tell them how smart they are. Bezos’ grandmother didn’t do that. Instead, she quite understandably burst into tears. It was after this exchange that Bezos’ grandfather took his grandson aside and taught him a lesson that he says has stuck with him for the rest of his life. “Jeff,” his grandfather said, “one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Your work is the only thing that matters.
A young comedian approached Jerry Seinfeld in a club one night and asked him for advice about marketing and getting exposure.
Exposure? Marketing? Seinfeld asks. Seinfeld, a pure stand-up, a comedian’s comedian, is appalled by the question. It’s offensive to his legendary heads-down work ethic. But to the kid, this was a surprise. Isn’t that the kind of question you’re supposed to ask? Isn’t that how you get ahead?
Just work on your act, Seinfeld said.
As a young woman, Amelia Earhart aspired to be a great aviator. But it was the 1920s, and people still thought women were frail and weak and didn’t have the stuff. Woman suffrage wasn’t even a decade old. She couldn’t make her living as a pilot, so she was working as a social worker.
Then one day the phone rang. A donor had been willing to fund the first female transatlantic flight. But there was a catch: Amelia wouldn’t get to actually fly the plane. She’d have to sit in the back like “a sack of potatoes,” as she put it. And not only that—the two male pilots were going to get paid, but she wouldn’t get paid anything.
Guess what she said to the offer? She said yes. Because that’s what people who defy the odds do. That’s how people who become great at things—whether it’s flying or blowing through gender stereotypes—do. They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. They swallow their pride. They do whatever it takes. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work. And they can prove the people who doubted them wrong, as Earhart certainly did.
They still hide money in books.
As a young boy, the famed basketball coach George Raveling learned an invaluable lesson from his grandmother, who raised him. As they were preparing dinner in the kitchen one evening she began to tell him about how in the days of slavery, the plantation owners would hide their money in books on the shelves of their libraries. “Why did the slave masters hide their money in books, George?” she asked him.
“I don't know Grandma,” George replied, “why did they do that?”
“Because they knew the slaves couldn't read,” she said, “so they would never take the books down.”
There’s a reason it was illegal to teach slaves to read. There is a reason that every totalitarian regime has burned and banned books. Knowledge is power. It sounds like a cliche, but cliches only sound that way because of the generally accepted truth at their core.
How to create anything of consequence.
Plutarch tells the story of a rich Delian ship owner who was asked how he built his fortune. “The greater part came quite easily,” he said, “but the first, smaller part took time and effort.”
Creating anything of consequence or magnitude requires deliberate, incremental, and consistent work. “Well-being is realized by small steps,” Zeno would say, looking back on his life, “but is truly no small thing.”
Be the red.
In a famous exchange, the Stoic philosopher Agrippinus explained why he was spurning an invitation to attend some banquet being put on by Nero. Not only was he spurning it, he said, but he had not even considered associating with such a madman.
A fellow philosopher, the one who had felt inclined to attend, asked for an explanation. Agrippinus responded with an interesting analogy. He said that most people see themselves like threads in a garment—they see it as their job to match the other threads in color and style. They want to blend in, so the fabric will match. But Agrippinus did not want to blend in. “I want to be the red,” he said, “that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful…’Be like the majority of people?’ And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?”
Use it all as fuel.
At age sixty-seven, Thomas Edison was eating dinner with his family when a man came rushing into his house with urgent news: A fire had broken out at Edison’s research and production campus a few miles away. Fire engines from eight nearby towns rushed to the scene, but they could not contain the blaze. Fueled by the strange chemicals in the various buildings, green and yellow flames shot up six and seven stories, threatening to destroy the empire Edison had spent his life building.
Edison calmly but quickly made his way to the fire, through the now hundreds of onlookers and devastated employees. Finding his son standing shellshocked at the scene, Edison would utter these famous words: “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
The Stoics loved the metaphor of fire. Marcus Aurelius would write that “a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” That’s what Edison did. He did not despair. He did not weep. He did not rage. Instead, he got to work. He told a reporter the next day that he wasn’t too old to make a fresh start, “I’ve been through a lot of things like this. It prevents a man from being afflicted with ennui.”
Do what you have to do.
Before the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant experienced a long chain of setbacks and financial difficulties. He washed up in St. Louis, selling firewood for a living—a hard fall for a graduate of West Point. An army buddy found him and was aghast. “Great God, Grant, what are you doing?” he asked. Grant’s answer was simple: “I am solving the problem of poverty.”
Never question another man’s courage.
After he became premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev was onstage, speaking to the Politburo, denouncing the crimes of Stalin’s regime. Anonymously, some unnamed member passed a note to the front of the room. “Yes,” it said, “but where were you at the time?”
Without a beat, Khrushchev, with an intimidating tone, shouted and asked who wrote the note. Silence. “I was where you are now,” Khrushchev. Meaning, in the audience. Anonymous. Intimidated. Doing nothing. Just like everyone else.
Alter your approach.
As a young working actor, George Clooney struggled with how to tackle his audition process. Clooney was always concerned about the problem that he faced: how to book an acting job and earn some much-needed income. How did he deal with this?
Clooney turned the situation around and had a realization: the audition was also an obstacle for the producers, who needed to find someone to fill the role and do an amazing job. Clooney began to approach his auditions from a different angle. Instead of going into his auditions as someone trying to get a job, he approached them as someone who could help the producers do theirs better. As a result, he began landing roles and would eventually become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated leading men.
You only control the effort, not the results.
John Kennedy Toole’s great book A Confederacy of Dunces was universally turned down by publishers, news that so broke his heart that he later committed suicide in his car on an empty road in Biloxi, Mississippi.
After his death, his mother discovered the book, advocated on its behalf until it was published, and it eventually won the Pulitzer Prize.
What changed between those submissions? Nothing. The book was the same. It was equally great when Toole had it in manuscript form and had fought with editors about it as it was when the book was published, sold copies, and won awards. If only he could have realized this, it would have saved him so much heartbreak. He couldn’t, but from his painful story we can at least see how arbitrary many of the breaks in life are.
Good things happen in bookstores.
On a merchant voyage in Athens in the 4th Century BC, a man named Zeno was shipwrecked. He lost everything. He washed up in Athens where he walked into a bookstore and listened to the bookseller reading dialogues from Socrates. After the reading, Zeno asked the question that would change his life: “Where can I find a man like that?” and in so doing, he began a philosophical journey that led to the founding of Stoicism and then, to the brilliant works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — which, not lost to history, are beginning to find a new life on bookshelves today. From those heirs to Zeno’s bookshop conversion, there is a straight line to many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and even to the Founding Fathers of America.
All from a chance encounter in a bookshop. According to the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, Zeno joked, “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey,” or according to another account, “You’ve done well, Fortune, driving me thus to philosophy,” he reportedly said.
Big ones, small ones, corporate or independent ones. Where books are browsed, new ideas are introduced to older readers, while old ideas are introduced to newer readers. And perspectives shift just the same. Couples connect. Experiences are shared. Worlds are built—in the pages of the books being browsed, and in the lives of those doing the browsing.
Follow the process.
There’s a story of the great 19th-century pioneer of meteorology, James Pollard Espy, and a chance encounter as a young man. Unable to read and write until he was 18, Espy attended a rousing speech by the famous orator Henry Clay. After the talk, a spellbound Espy tried to make his way toward Clay, but he couldn’t form the words to speak to his idol. One of his friends shouted out for him: “He wants to be like you, even though he can’t read.”
Clay grabbed one of his posters, which had the word CLAY written in big letters. He looked at Espy and said, “You see that, boy?” pointing to a letter. “That’s an A. Now, you’ve only got 25 more letters to go.”
As Heraclitus observed, “under the comb, the tangle and the straight path are the same.” There is no task, however seemingly mammoth, that is not just a series of component parts.
Remember that you will die.
In late 1569, a French nobleman named Michel de Montaigne was given up as dead after being flung from a galloping horse. As his friends carried his limp and bloodied body home, Montaigne watched his own life slip away, like some dancing spirit on the “tip of his lips,” only to have it return at the last possible second. This sublime and unusual experience marked the moment Montaigne changed his life. Within a few years, he would be one of the most famous writers in Europe. After his accident, Montaigne went on to write volumes of popular essays, serve two terms as mayor, travel internationally as a dignitary, and serve as a confidante of the king.
It’s a story as old as time. Person nearly dies, takes stock, and emerges from the experience a completely different, and better, person. And this is the old philosophical idea of memento mori—"remember that you will die.” In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “you could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Never assume that you have a firm grasp on life because it could slip from your fingers at any moment.