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Job, Stockdale and Epictetus: Reflections on Constructing a Life

Sometime ago a friend of mine suggested that most people had trouble sorting out their lives and needed to read
the 'Great Books' - not necessarily because all the answers were there. Though many of the critical questions that
come up over & over again were carefully considered by some of the greatest minds and it was participating in
that examination that he felt would help. While agreeing with him as a principle my counter was that most/nearly
all are swamped from these efforts by the requirements of daily existence. Yet learning to cope with those trials &
tribulations is what it's all about. At the end we sorta agreed that what was required was 3rd party intervention to
help capture, synthesize and communicate, as well as enhance and extend where possible, key insights.

At the end of the day though I have to more than concede that my friend was fundamentally correct - investing
some time in frequent consideration of these 'spiritual' explorations and their application to daily life is vital.

With that as preamble I'd like to submit some further reflections on Job, an intro and reflections on Stockdale's
'Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot' and Epitectus - Stockdale's ultimate mentor and inspiration.

Reflections on Job:

Sometime ago another friend remarked that Job was one of the more, if not most, difficult books of the bible; and
one he didn't resolve or feel was well resolved by most discussions he'd seen. After further reflection that seems
true to me but it also seems to be me that most of the analysis/reactions/difficulties lie in how the judgments are
framed. People read the book looking for a simple reward & punishment world where the authority rewards good
behavior and punishes bad.

Let me start with argument that the perceptual error is assuming that there is an inherent moral order in the
universe and all one has to do is align oneself with it to live a just, happy and well-rewarded life. In other words
bad things never happen to good people.

1. These difficulties are often resolved, or at least attempted, or parsed into conclusions by a) using them for
the wrong reasons - that is re-interpreting them into evidence of punishment and reward, to be measured
by the author's preferred yardsticks, despite the repeated discussions in the text itself of different cases
where this is not true. Or more generally, logically and impracticably by b) arguing that God is beyond our
comprehension, finite minds cannot encompass him and therefore his reasons are inscrutable and not to
be questioned by such as we.

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Reflections on Job, Stockdale and Epiectetus

o The trouble is further compounded because the original authors chicken out and Job is eventually
seen living happily ever after, having been returned to prosperity - thereby making terminally
wishy-washy the raising of the most profound questions. The two key, nay critical, ones are what
is the moral nature of the universe? And what is Faith? Stop, take a minute and set your
inclinations to answering those questions in your mind.
o The story's resolution doesn't particularly appeal to me because of the wishy-washy thing. On the
other side the classic (inscrutability) answer appeals even less - it strikes me as too clever by
more than half and uses logic chopping to avoid confronting the heart of the matter. Despite it's
being true as well as laying some groundwork for serious consideration if it were carried farther.
o So the test being proposed is that we confront Job's challenges head-on and resolve them
within the boundaries of the world we live in rather than duck out on either the fairy-tale or
theorists side of things.
2. Let's start with a first proposed resolution and add on some consequences and considerations. We’ll start
by arguing the universe is as it is - meaning that it's 'here' and we have to deal with it.
o And further that it is as it must be - that is there seems to be a natural order that organizes
everything we've been able to examine but that order doesn't appear to be driven by first
principles per se (or at least headed to some goal) nor is there an obvious moral purpose from
the universe's unfolding. More mundanely, not all children are above average and the natural
working of things seems to generate bad events as a natural consequence (novas blow up but
are necessary to create the more complex elements which sustain planetary development and
the evolution of life, these elements create chemistry which leads to biology and so on, life suffers
extinctions - often enormous ones - as the universe bumbles along, lions eat zebras and people
do bad things). Or, put still another way, the natural order seems to require events that are
both good and bad, taken separately and in isolation, that do not appear to have an
inherent moral economy that defines good & bad for us in universal terms.
o On the other hand if the universe has no inherent moral code we are free to choose the rules we
live by. That is the morality of the universe is what we choose it to be by our actions. So the
questions really being raised are what moral nature do we choose? And what is your Faith?
o And, as applies to Job, let's think it thru (pause for reflection). If Job's, or anyone's, bad
experiences are simply the natural workings of the Universe - as created by God - then ours is to
bear up under it, do the best we can, try to improve things where possible and meanwhile act in
and have/maintain Faith. This in fact is a better answer than the one traditionally given - though it
takes a powerful lot of thinking thru and then contemplation to see that. But it's the one Job
almost gives and the author eventually ducks.

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Reflections on Job, Stockdale and Epiectetus

3. So, if there is no mandated moral behavior per se, neither is it prevented or precluded. In other words we
are free to choose to act morally and in fact have an inescapable responsibility to do so.
o The evidence does seem to suggest however that choosing to a) place the women and children
first encourages species survival but also leads to a type of society we'd prefer to live in, and that
b) we're all better off, by and large, together. That is, it is thru complex, cooperative behavior that
societies become wealthier and enable a bigger pie to be created, though who gets which share
is an on-going debate. I am my brother's keeper - and visa versa - so watered, well-fed, and
clean cages or otherwise here we all are together.
o Finally c) it turns out that most people most of the time feel better in doing as right as they can
manage. It's why we like to see movies where heroes win after triumphing over adversity.
(Personally I'd like to see more movies that are both uplifting and realistic - the hero could die and
be unrequited but it was his choice and he has/had a good chance of seeing some gain). One
can debate where this innateness comes from, the nature vs. nurture, and the levels of
development that are genetic vs. those that are added by education - the best evidence is that
genes and culture co-evolve and that we feel good when doing good because those have been
the choices of the survivors from before we were homo sapiens.
o It is 'amusing' that many fundamentalists present and defend the most primitive possible view of
the universe - a simple-minded punishment vs. reward model - as the primary reason for good
behavior and attack evolution because it challenges this model in their own minds. An interesting
comment on the relative spiritual maturity scale is that they apparently view things much the way
one views disciplining kids or raising puppies. We’re all for good behavior so if it's necessary for
their's to envision God as lurking around with a giant newspaper, rolled up and ready to swat, well
- whatever works.
Recently we heard an apparently extremely well-respected Baptist fundamentalist who
had a huge church, a $2M/month cash flow, was on all the boards and committees on
PBS talking about an epiphany. It seems he was sitting around dandling his grandchild in
his $million home, watching the $50K home theatre and saw the genocides in Rwanda
and had an exchange with God. Which went something like - hell isn't a place you go to
for not adhering to the practices of the fundamentalists. IT's here and now and is
created by man. For this piece of blasphemy he's been excommunicated, excoriated in
all the right thinking magazines as a dangerous apostate, shunned by his old mentor and
friend Pat Robertson who'll no long return his calls, had his church die, his parishioners
abandon him and tithes disappear - along of course with his lifestyle. By-the-Way (BtW) -
it should probably be noted that this very simple view of hell is not traceable to gospels
that I can tell, especially the New Testament but owes more to that humanist Dante as
well as ancient pagan religions. Need we point to the ironies of it all?

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Reflections on Job, Stockdale and Epiectetus

o THE real sidebar thought is this though - isn't it a marvelous miracle? That the universe is
so structured that freedom and responsibility for our fates is our choice. Of course it's
uncomfortable, scary, difficult and hard to bring off. But still - rather like discovering that rainbows
are light refracted thru atmosphere and have the colors they do because of spectra, which are in
turn based on the fundamental atomic structure of matter. That either makes it more compelling
that all that complexity can be looked at whole or in pieces - taken all together - or is
overwhelming. All the myriad choices and interactions are even more fascinatingly complex yet
somehow cohere. Wonderful, hard, scary. All of the above. Mommy, I wanna go home! Please?
4. The second big topic is Faith - do you choose to believe in God as a choice? Or because fear of
punishment and hoped for rewards make you? We're all probably somewhere on a spectrum between the
two. But there's a deeper and subtler irony here - even if it's a reward and punishment universe and God
is a spoiled, vengeful, personal deity you still can't be forced beyond what you choose to tolerate. Think
about it.
o The other choice goes back to the 'Wordless Word' - the failure of limited logic to capture
everything (which is Blake's criticism of a perfect Newtonian universe and the Deist
interpretations - that man was trying to bind the Deity to his own limited understandings). Do you
move beyond mere intellectual apprehensions, irrespective of the balance of good & evil in the
apparent world?
o Prior to the final cop-out of the author, Job was displaying a bedrock faith where he chose
how he was going to believe and how he would conduct himself. He couldn't control the
externals of his life - he could only control his reactions to them - and he chose Faith.
o In the real world we often reach our limits under stress, especially severe pressures. The real
challenge then is how does one arrest and recover from a failure? Rather than wimping out it
would have been even more interesting if Job had cracked and then had to recover his Faith. A
deeper lesson but the writer probably chickened out, having already strained the audience
beyond tolerances or comprehension.

So at the end of day rather than the traditional silence (either of the pass-on-bye or the distort to what I want it to
say- usually rewards and punishments) it seems to me there are two much more powerful answers. One is that in
the nature of the universe both good and bad happen inherently but there is nothing evil in its nature. Rather evil,
and good, reflect conscious choices by humans; and the neat thing is we have the freedom to make them within
that natural universe. Which then leaves the question of where, and how, do you stand? That is rewards and
punishments which leave you continually scrambling for explanations? Or a deeper faith in Divinity, in humanity
and the ungraspable 'Wordless Word' - after all, we're Hear aren't we? [There's a subtle play on hear vs here
involving the original Greek Logos or initial Word/Spirit that moved the creation].

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Reflections on Job, Stockdale and Epiectetus

Stockdale and Stance

The question we left hanging is how and where do we stand? One that's been wrestled with of course for
millennia, that we know about, by some of the strongest minds and characters we're familiar with. Because bad
things happen to good people all the time finding a place to stand is challenging - one of many who found such a
place in the most difficult of circumstances is VADM James Stockdale. We're all probably vaguely aware of his
story but some of the details are astonishing - at least as judged by any normal course of life in the modern age
for a Westerner. To start with bear in mind that this was a man who was a test pilot and test pilot instructor, some
of whose students became astronauts. A man who helped create some of the first deployed supersonic fighters
and held senior command positions three times successively. Quintessential 'Right Stuff' - not a man whom you'd
think a great fan of the classics let alone a 2,000 years old dead, crippled Greek ex-slave named Epictetus.

To review some of the details when he was shot down villagers broke his leg and it was not treated for a long time
- and then only under sufferance. When new prisoners were brought into the prison they were 'put in the ropes';
that is their hands were bound behind them, they were seated on the floor with leg irons, circulation was cut off to
the point were their hands/arms would be useless for months and a guard pressured or stood on their back to
force them forward to cut off air or until they threw up. This continued until these modern masters of technology
and fighting were broken, sobbing wretches who confessed to 'crimes against the people'. Afterwards they were
left in isolation for several months so that they could wallow in the guilt of having betrayed their country, their
service and their comrades.

In such circumstances you'd think it'd be everyone for themselves, and that no senior officer could ask for anyone
to put themselves at such risks. In fact in the interests of avoiding career black marks several senior prisoners,
who ranked Stockdale, maintained a silence rather than provide the leadership requested by the community. Yet
in all of this he a) managed to organize an ordered military organization using a 'tap' code for cryptographic
communication, b) instill pride, discipline and self-respect in this community so that they walked out of the prison
with their heads held up high, c) embarrass the North Vietnamese who were fighting a propaganda war by having
his pilots voluntarily lace their 'confessions' with absurdities (the only pilot who resigned his commission was
Adam West for example) and d) create, consciously and deliberately, a self-governing, civilization that
voluntarily adhered to the highest standards of Western civilization.

Recall the last time you had a cold and weren't feeling like doing anything - now imagine being isolated in a small,
cold room by yourself with no outside anything for a day with the chance that someone might come by and just
pummel you. How long would you hold up? And how well, for how long? Stockdale's reward was something like
four YEARS in solitary and some TWELVE trips thru the ropes during seven years of imprisonment.

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Reflections on Job, Stockdale and Epiectetus

• BTW - just in passing apparently during the first four years, the last of the Democratic administration's,
were the worst because the administration had lost heart and was giving up on it's own moral obligations.
When Nixon came to office he told the world about prisoner treatment - which literally saved Stockdale's
life at the last possible minute. He'd cut his own wrists while being in a chained chair overnight waiting for
another rope session. His wife appeared at the Paris talks with administration support. These men would
have just disappeared if it were left up to the politicians who started that war.

Anyway this is all set out in 'Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot' - which is a collection of essays and
speeches, mostly speeches, that discusses the situation, how it was addressed and how it worked as well as why.
Many of the essays cover the same ground though with little additions and emendations. If you can get the book
read it; if you can't try and check it out and read some selected chapters. Below is my second pass at trying to
derive some principles based on these. They are in turn Stockdale's operating principles that he pulls from
Epictetus ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epictetus , http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Epictetus ). For what it's worth here
we go. Also BtW - believe me I wouldn't go thru this effort if it didn't seem worthwhile and extraordinarily valuable.
My poor words cannot convey the impactfulness summarized and taken away from their supporting context.
Nonetheless....

Stockdale’s Principles of a Constructed Life

1. Basic Principle #1: You can't control events external to yourself, you can only manage your own
reactions to them.
o This sounds incredibly simple but once understood it's quite insightful; once grasped and acted
on it's very powerful. Blaming yourself for things you can't control is fruitless; conversely
placing the blame on others, the system, etc. rather than dealing as best you can is also
fruitless.
o 98% of us spend 99% of our time and energy grasping after externals - prettier girlfriend, new car,
etc. etc. only to find them less than satisfactory and have to keep grasping after what we want
and being increasingly dissatisfied.
2. Principle #2: everybody has limits and yours will be reached from time-to-time. In other words there is
more bad in the universe than a stiff upper lip will conquer. That doesn't mean it won't help, but it'll help
you cope, not eliminate the bad.
o If you let guilt and doubt over failure to adhere to some principal overwhelm you, you'll loose all
faith, sense of self-worth and confidence and just fade away.
o On the other hand if you keep the faith you'll find the best that's in you. You find that still center
by doing the best you can in the circumstances.

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3. Principle #3: self-worth comes from acting from what you know to be the best; or at least trying to your
own limits. IF you act as best you can your self-worth will remain intact and thereby your faith.
4. Principle #4: You must, however, be honest with yourself and admit failures when it happens.
Acknowledge that it was in fact your choice to not accept the pain.
o This is being honest with yourself about what's important and how well you adhere to your own
standards.
o On this path lies satisfaction and movement away from externals; on it therefore lies true
happiness, balance and an integrated mind.
5. Principle #5: What rescues you from acknowledged failure is usually the aid and comfort of someone
around you. It is the greater community reaching out to help.
o Paradoxically then, what leads to more strenuous attempts to cope (in this case deal with torture
without giving up information) is a sense of the greater good of the community.

Let me try, admitting again that I'm not really capturing the power and eloquence of Stockdale let alone Epictetus,
the following summary:

Act always as you can for the betterment of self, for the sake of those around you and
for the good of society as a whole.

IF you act as best you can and know that you have, recognizing both external limits and
internal incapacities, you have the most precious possession –
A fundamental sense of your own worth.

One that is separate from any uncontrollable influences or impacts from the outside.

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