Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back. – Marcus Aurelius
What does that mean?
This quote is attributed to Marcus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator, however I couldn’t find it in his surviving written works*. Somehow, I doubt he actually said it, but it does sound Stoic, doesn’t it?
While the quote is about death in particular, I believe it applies to every thing we do. No matter how smart, strong, powerful, or influential we think we are, there are forces beyond our ability to understand, much less control.
Like death, these things can sneak up on us and wreck our plans with little or no warning. What do we do when misfortune smiles at us? Do we tremble in fear, or do we smile back?
While that is a personal decision, I believe hiding and trembling make for a bad precedent. If you get used to folding under pressure, what will you do when something you can change, but only with great effort comes before you? Will you face it, or hide from it?
Why is facing challenges important?
Yes, sometimes if we hide from a challenge, it will pass us by, and we can come out of hiding none the worse for it. However, it doesn’t always work that way. In my life, it almost never works that way. The challenge just gets bigger and stronger when I don’t stand up to it.
Again, if you get in the habit of running from the impossible challenges, what will you do when something lesser comes along? If your first reaction is to hide, eventually (taken to the extreme) you will be afraid of your own shadow.
I doubt you even know someone that adverse to challenges, but we all fall somewhere between the ideal of the quote and the scaredy-cat. We will all draw the line in a different place, depending on the situation and our ability (and willingness to accept risk). This is just a chance to think about it, and consider what you might change
Where can I apply this in my life?
While death (from the quote) is kind of hard to stare down, we’ve all had some close calls in our life. Have you ever had to dig deep to face a challenge where death was a possibility, and managed to face it, and come out alive?
I’ve had a few, and I have found that I tend to do a fairly good job of keeping my head for the duration of the emergency. Car wrecks and a motorcycle down in rush hour on the freeway (not me) are but two of the times when not facing the challenge could have made things much worse for me and for others.
What situations tend to scare you, or cause you to be disinclined to face a challenge? Sometimes the chance that it is impossible scares people away. Take the Four Minute Mile or Manned Flight. To many, these were absolutely impossible tasks, and they never faced the challenge.
But once the Four Minute Mile was broken, many people saw it to be possible, and faced the challenge. A few even succeeded. The same thing happened with Manned Flight. Once it was proven, many others took up the challenge. Some made the highlight reel, others are seen only in the follies. But they faced the challenge.
Raising kids is full of challenges. While there have been times when I needed a moment to collect myself, I always came back and faced the challenge. Now I have a son who’s a teenager, so I’m sure there will be many additional challenges in the future for me to face.
It seems easy to me, because I don’t accept any outcome as a failure, so long as I can learn from it. I also refuse to let a challenge get to me. I have jumped out of an airplane, just to face the challenge. It might be a stupid boy thing, but I’m not one to back down.
We all have different strategies for dealing with challenges. What situations did you come up with which tend to cause you to hide from, rather than face, a challenge? Is there a pattern? Are there certain situations where you are less likely to face the challenge?
Can you explain why? Not to me, but to yourself? Can you put your finger on it? Was there a time when you faced it, and lost, and lost badly? Did you lose something, or were you or someone else hurt (physically, mentally, emotionally, etc)?
Are you more capable now? Could you handle the challenge better? Have you learned things, or improved your skills? What I’m getting at is this: Does it still make sense to not face this challenge? There are no absolutes, you will have to choose for yourself what you will face.
But it is a choice. The question is will you pick one challenge and smile back, even if it is just a little grin?
* UPDATE: I found it, or a rough translation of the quote. It is the last line of the following:
Why do you hunger for length of days? The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.
- There is nothing in the world so much admired as a man who knows how to bear unhappiness with courage. (philosiblog.com)
- Marcus Aurelius: Ignorance of What Is Good Or Evil by Sebastian (sebastianmarshall.com)