As I was preparing for a talk to an agricultural group, I read an article about Greek philosophy.
Like you do.
I do know a couple people who studied philosophy in college; I’m hoping they can just keep quiet about the flaws in this column.
In ancient Greece, there was a school of philosophy comprised of people called Stoics.
Stoics believe in accepting what happens, that the way to be happy is to live justly and virtuously and roll with the punches. In other words, some days the manure spreader breaks, some days the bank changes its mind, some days your 16-year-old daughter wrecks the car because she was drinking. While those are all miserable experiences, the Stoics would say that a miserable experience doesn’t have to make you miserable. The four virtues of stoicism are Courage, Moderation, Justice and Wisdom. Everything we face in life can be responded to with one or more of these traits.
I don’t think you can be a farmer without being a little bit of a Stoic. I absolutely loved many things about being a farmer – it’s a career I chose on purpose and did for thirty years until my body started to object. On the flip side, there are times when being a farmer isn’t a complete joy. Pumping pits, cleaning grain bins, laying under a piece of machinery to loosen a rusty bolt as blood from your skinned knuckles drips on your shirt – not fun. Finding something to laugh about goes a long way toward retaining your sanity.
Epicureanism, on the other hand, says that people are ultimately driven by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. A good life is a pleasurable life. Try to do that which makes you happy.
That sounds simple, doesn’t it? Marie Kondo, the woman who helps people unclutter their lives says to get rid of everything that doesn’t spark joy. As a philosophy, that makes me a little nervous, because if my wife ever took that to heart, I’m afraid I’d get dropped off at Goodwill along with the VHS tapes and old furniture.
In my opinion, the coolest thing that Epicurus said was the way he described pleasure. Pleasure is what comes of meeting our desires, and the highest form of pleasure is tranquility, with tranquility described as the lack of desires. Bottom line is, no matter how much money you have, you don’t have it all. Fame, fun, sex... if you have some, the human tendency is to want more. It’s like the story about the Texas rancher who said, “I don’t want all the land in the world. I just want what’s mine, and what’s next to it.”
Sometimes, happiness isn’t about having more, it’s about wanting less.
It made me laugh when I read that, because I had a flashback to Wally Rosenlund. When I was growing up, Wally was a big influence on me. He was a friend of my father’s. When he was in his fifties, he had a farm sale, and then he and his wife packed everything they owned in a little travel trailer and spent a few years touring the country. After they’d seen everything they wanted to see, they came home to Clinton, Minnesota, bought a little house, and lived there the rest of their lives. Wally was one of those guys that small towns can’t survive without. He raised money to build the nursing home and mowed the lawn there for a decade or so. He cleaned eaves troughs on widows’ houses along with many other good deeds. Late in his life, in the 1970s, he was in the hospital for one thing or another, and when he was discharged, my dad drove him home. They stopped at the front desk on their way out and Wally wrote out a check for the hospital stay. Granted, that was a long time ago, but it was still a substantial amount of money. Dad mused about that during the drive home and because they were good friends, he finally asked, “Geez, Wally, can you afford that?”
Wally shrugged and said, “Edie and I can afford anything we want. We just don’t want much.”
Wally Rosenlund, retired farmer, and, apparently, an ancient Greek Epicurean philosopher.
So, on the one hand, the ancient Greeks are telling you to seek out what makes you happy, and on the other, you’re being told that the secret is to be happy no matter what you’re doing. Don’t be confused by that.
Seneca, a big shot in the ancient Greek world once said, “I’m never afraid to quote a good saying from a bad writer.” That’s something else we could learn from the ancient Greeks – the truth is the truth, no matter who says it, and usually no one has a handle on the complete truth. Sometimes you must pick and choose to develop a plan by which to live. As someone, not an ancient Greek, once said, “Every now and then even a blind hog finds an acorn.”
This world can be hard, dangerous and confusing. You can’t always choose to do what makes you happy, and you can’t always be happy no matter what you’re doing.
But you can try.
Copyright 2021 Brent Olson