On Making a Graceful Exit

Fresno Bee, November 15, 2020

The political news reminds us of the wisdom of graceful exits.  Businesses need succession plans.  Individuals ought to prepare advance medical directives.  It is wise to learn to depart with dignity.  That means not clinging or lingering until the bitter end.    

In show business they say, “leave them wanting more.”  It is better for the show to end with an empty spotlight than to offer another encore to a thinning crowd.  How you exit determines how you are remembered. 

Knowing when to quit requires modesty, self-knowledge, and self-control.  Those who refuse to leave are greedy, narcissistic, and embarrassing.  The aging quarterback hanging on for another season is sad.  The scandal-ridden bureaucrat who refuses to resign lacks a sense of shame.  And the autocrat who clings to power is dangerous. 

Sages and saints have extolled the virtue of finishing well.  Saint Paul said, “the time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.”  Paul expresses a kind of heroic resignation.  Do your best.  Stay strong.  And when the day is done, put out the light.

Socrates said something similar.  When he was sentenced to death, Socrates responded calmly and with dignity.  He said simply, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways.”  He didn’t rant or rave.  Nor did he challenge the legitimacy of the jury’s vote. 

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus pictured life as a naval cruise.  Sometimes your ship visits port and you get shore leave.  But when the captain says it’s time to sail, you must depart.  You can board the ship in a dignified manner.  Or you can be bound like a sheep and thrown on board.  The choice of a noble departure is up to you.

Those who cling often have a delusional self-image that is out of touch with reality.  Some people think they are the life of the party.  Others think they are the smartest person in the room.  Obnoxious boors ignore the yawns and eye-rolls of the crowd.  They are blind to the feedback of the world. 

Clingers often view themselves as irreplaceable and indispensable.  “She can’t live without me,” the clingy boyfriend says.  “They’ll never win without me,” the grizzled quarterback tells himself.  And the aging diva says, “my audience needs me.”

This is rationalization and projection.  The washed-up quarterback can’t imagine life without the team.  The clingy boyfriend can’t live without her.  And the aging diva needs the adoring crowd.

In reality, everyone can be replaced.  In fact, there are usually dozens of talented people waiting in the wings.  One of the problems of those who cling is that they don’t make room for other talent to shine.

Good parents, coaches, and mentors know when to get out of the way.  The same is true of good bosses.  A great pleasure of coaching and parenting occurs when you realize that the kids are alright without you.  If you’ve done your job, you are no longer necessary. 

Clinginess can be easily confused with loyalty and tenacity.  But loyalty and tenacity require moderation.  Too much loyalty is blind allegiance.  An excess of tenacity is mule-headed stubbornness.  The challenge of life is to learn to hold tightly until the moment when it is wise to let go. 

Benjamin Franklin said that fish and houseguests start to stink after a few days.  But we lose track of the time.  Clueless guests don’t notice that the party is over and the hosts are dozing off.  We often fail to notice that the expiration date has passed until the stench is overwhelming.

We need to learn to read the crowd.  When the audience starts yawning, it’s time to wrap things up.  When the crowd is grumbling and groaning, it is already too late.  It is better to leave early than to leave a lingering stench. 

We also need to keep better track of time and to learn modesty.  Our days are numbered.  We each play only a minor part in the drama of the world.  Our role is important but limited.  Our time on the stage is short.  Make the most of it.  And then depart with dignity.

Ethical New Year’s Resolutions

Have a Philosophical New Year

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2014

As the calendar turns, it is natural to take stock of our lives. Reflecting on the past year and making New Year’s resolutions is a philosophical activity. The ancient philosophers also made lists and resolutions as part of the effort to live mindfully.

Stoic Philosopher Epictetus
Stoic Philosopher Epictetus

The key to a philosophical life is to try to see things as they actually are. We are often deceived by idealism, ideology and emotion. Our hopes lead us astray. Our fears disempower us. And our fantasies confuse us. The solution is to get in touch with reality.

Consider diet — a typical focus of New Year’s resolutions. We fantasize about food and drink, as if a cocktail or a bag of chips has the magic power to produce happiness. A philosophical diet focuses on the reality of eating and drinking. These are merely biological functions, not fantastic cures for spiritual poverty.

Or consider what we learn from typical year-end lists. These lists show us, as they do every year, that human beings are mortal and imperfect. Some people died. Others were born. Heroes inspired us. But violence and war continue to exist.

For every genius, there are a hundred fools — for every murderer, a hundred lovers. Human nature is neither perfectible nor unredeemable. Optimists don’t like to hear the bad news. Pessimists are unable to see the good. But the truth is in the middle.

We live in a changing world. Our characters are not fixed. We make progress and improve. We backslide and degenerate. Life is a project to be lived. That’s why resolutions are useful: they remind us of who we want to be.

It’s a shame that we waste our resolutions on trivial stuff such as losing weight or making money. It would be better to resolve to be more caring, more intelligent, more courageous, more just and more mindful.

Here are a few reminders and resolutions distilled from the teachings of the ancient philosophers. If it is not right, don’t do it. If it is not true, don’t say it. Do nothing inconsiderately. Remember that no evil lasts forever, including pain. Understand that nothing is entirely in your own control, even your own emotions. Acknowledge that everyone, including you, eventually dies. Bear in mind that you have no power over what other people say or do. Understand that human beings share much in common. And see that we all benefit from compassion and justice.

The ancient philosophers emphasized taking active steps to improve life. Those who wait for the world to change may wait forever. The Roman philosopher Seneca once explained that the problem is not that life is too short but that we waste too much of it. Life is long enough and rich enough, if you make a constant effort to live it well.

Of course, not everything works out for the best. Sometimes tragedy occurs. And sometimes we make mistakes. But we cannot give up because of tragedy or fret over our mistakes. Strength, courage, resilience and tenacity are required at all times.

The key is to accept the things we cannot change and focus our effort on the things we can improve. Another Roman philosopher, Epictetus, said that we should stop wishing that things would happen as we want them to happen and learn to accept the world as it does happen. This is a useful strategy, when things don’t go right. But resigning yourself to fate does not mean giving up on the effort to live as well as you can in the life that fate has given you.

The world won’t change until you make it change. And you won’t become better until you put forth the effort. Wisdom, courage, and intelligence are needed to negotiate a world in which every noble and beautiful thing will eventually fade. Enjoy the good things while they last. Grit your teeth through the bad times. And keep yourself open to opportunities for improvement.

The philosophical approach is demanding. There are no quick fixes or super-human saviors here. This is your life, the philosophers teach, your one and only chance to live well. Each new year — each new moment — is a chance to excel. What you do with that opportunity is entirely up to you

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/12/26/4301690_take-a-chance-with-this-years.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy