In the opening minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan, an old man is leading his family on a pilgrimage to Normandy and a WW II cemetery. He kneels at the grave marker of the lieutenant (played by Tom Hanks) who led a band of army rangers to save him, the last of the surviving Ryan brothers. The old man weeps and turns to ask his wife, “Have I been a good man?” In other words, was his life been worth the sacrifice of so many?
Two thousand years ago Caesar Augustus lay on his death bed and weakly turned to his wife and asked her judgment of his outwardly incomparable life. He asked, “Did I play my role well?” History doesn’t record her response, but I’ll bet it was as reassuring as Mrs. Ryan’s.
These two vignettes portray the fundamental question of all humans for all of recorded history, and perhaps since we first became thoughtful. Down through the ages men have asked themselves, “Why I am here and what is my purpose?” The final answer is given in Luke 10:27, but men still rebel against this truth.
Zeno of Citium is credited with the ancient philosophy of stoicism. This perspective was actually a way of life and a religion, influencing notables such as the Apostle Paul, Seneca and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. We don’t study history anymore and certainly not antiquity. However, our Founding Fathers maintained that we should study history to make ourselves better. I spent the first thirty-five years of my life in science, but I’ve spent the last several decades in the humanities studying what I was never taught: the wisdom of the ages.
Some of my critics complain when I don’t write about some dry-as-toast medical topic or give “curbside” consultations like Dr. Phil. Cursory medical consultations and opinions are dangerous. I might ask these nattering nabobs what could be more germane than our purpose.
The Emperor Marcus Aurelius is best known to our culture by the movie The Gladiator. At the beginning of this movie the Emperor is on a military campaign pushing back the invading barbarian German tribes. He would die near present day Vienna, though his son Commodus probably did not assassinate him as depicted in the movie. Marcus Aurelius was also a stoic philosopher. His private thoughts later published as his Meditations seem to champion the lesson of Luke 10:27 (“love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself”). Aurelius’ reflections are more important than his marginal legacy as Roman Emperor. He was never able to subdue the German tribes, and he was not able to reign in his bastard (?) and sadistic son who would follow as Emperor and become a terrible tyrant. The movie got that right.
Stoic philosophy has come to be a comfort for this doctor who is no longer in control of much. This week three of my patients were hospitalized, and because few other internists see their hospitalized patients, they were sent elsewhere through confusion. The great stoic teacher Epictetus said you only have control of your thoughts and your actions.
Interestingly, the first century AD was a time of intense religious fervor perhaps similar to the Great Awakening in America in the 1730s. Monotheism was in ascendancy, and belief in the one true God was taught by stoicism. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for the secular humanists who now control our country. A similar illiberal bunch was in control of the French Revolution in the 18th century. These “enlightened” humanists, devoid of God, erected an obelisk to reason and worshipped it as the tyranny of the guillotine beheaded tens of thousands.
Do you believe in destiny? Is there a purpose and a plan for our lives, though often mysterious and inscrutable? Or, do you hold that everything is just a result of happenstance, and given sufficient time and opportunity you’d be reading these words. I’ve come to accept that there’s more to life than I can ever understand. Philosophical luminaries have come to the same conclusion over and over again. It seems that humans must be humbled by circumstances before we are able to see clearly the ultimate Cause. No, I don’t believe that the Creator causes people to get sick or get into all measure of trouble. Nor do I believe we can change our destiny; we can only live up to our potential and help others achieve theirs as we all keep looking up.
I needed all my stoic reserves recently when our IT department did an “upgrade” of our electronic medical record (EMR) system. Those of you who work with computers and suffer through “upgrades” often mumble under your breath that they should be labeled “heartburn.” And when the inevitable crash occurred and I felt the urge to launch out in a rant against the dysfunctional system that I am now forced to use, I took a deep breath and turned the dang thing off and went back to paper and pencil. I felt self righteous when the spade I’d been handed to dig a hole had the blade removed, leaving me with only the figurative handle.
You’ll be surprised that I didn’t pick up the phone and complain, and instead focused on doing my best, apologizing to patients as I went. All is well now after the glitch was repaired and the IT guys, Billie and Tyler, courteously reattached the spade to my computer shovel. Epictetus and Paul would be proud; and I’m sure The Master is as well.