11. Live temperately

Most people I know, when they think of temperance, imagine crowds of people, mostly women, protesting the sale and consumption of hard liquor – usually proceeding and following the passage and repeal of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which prohibited production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States between 1920 to 1933. Other interpretations found in guides for living in many world religions and published in private “how to live” guidebooks suggest that temperance means moderation, in all things. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation”. Many sages and saints talk about keeping the belly only partially full of solids, with the remainder air. The Stoic idea (and Buddhist monk) idea of unflappability in the face of adversity, hunger, pain, arousal, or any kind of distress provides the name for the Middle Path. Only during periods like the height of the Romantic period, when enlightened thinkers took William Blake’s the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough to its logical extreme, has the “advice” to humanity on a good and suitable life ever veered from a more or less strictly defined narrow way of barely enjoyed pastimes. Certainly, Montaigne’s ideal given his Stoic, Epicurean and Skeptic influences and nature included always seeking and preferring that Middle Way of centered non-perturbation.

Where one’s influence ends and nature begins is always a subjective argument. Without digressing completely into nature versus nurture again, I think unless we redefine what is meant by nature, and one’s natural state, any discussion is probably absolutely pointless. After all, is it more important that we possess a nature, that we become aware of it, or that we act in a way that we believe is in accordance with that perceived nature – even though in truth we probably have no idea how to actually define something so apparently outside ourselves (and if it is human nature, it is outside the purview of the individual), nor how to actually point our actions to achieve a demonstrably nebulous goal? What we know of nature is more or less a function of how we are nurtured. We are only able to subjectively make the distinction when we observe others; where these shades of gray melt into each other in our own persons is indistinguishable to our own eyes.

As far as living temperately, I think the Dalai Lama is probably more on track, when he counsels us to “live warm-heartedly”. Again, I’m drawn back to climate as a parable for human existence. The most obvious word to describe the temperate zones on planet Earth is “warm”. Not too hot, not too cold, and probably the most conducive to a relatively consistent human experience, at least as far as concerns the weather – global warming notwithstanding. My interpretation, and I think the Dalai Lama shares this view, follows the way we describe a mean, heartless person as “cold” and a quick-tempered, easily excitable person as “hot”. Being “warm-hearted” means being kind, compassionate, caring, and genuinely interested in the well-being and welfare of others. It can also describe the Stoic ideal: of being accepting, even-dispositioned, and unflappable; accepting of fate as it comes, of life as it unfolds. There is a thin line of demarcation between karma and amor fati – a line obviously invisible to the eye, and therefore as de Saint-Exupéry put it, absolutely “essential.”

So, taking this central point backward from Tenzin Gyatso through Saint-Exupéry, Franklin, and Montaigne, it seems obvious that the trick of living well is living warmly. Being, contrary to old Polonius, both a borrower AND a lender. Assuming, not because it is an overly optimistic and excessively cheerful way of going through life with blinders on, but because any other point of view is contrary to a realistic interpretation on life, that everything that can happen DOES happen. And everything that COULD happen or hasn’t happened yet? Unless you make personal steps to make it so, number one, it’s pointless to assume a different outcome. They say that one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again – and expecting different results. You might as well suppose just as insane – considering the fact that scientifically speaking, you cannot prove infinitely that an experiment always works, but it takes only a single occurrence to prove it a failure – both doing things differently and expecting different results as well as doing something different and expecting the same results. The only sane approach, philosophically, is not to propose, “Everything happens for a reason” but to suggest simply that “Everything happens.”

A logical justification for living temperately. Enjoying warm relationships with people, things, events, etc., is infinitely easier – and probably less stressful and a great deal more enjoyable – than constantly trying, in conflict with our underlying nature, better angels, religious gurus, fear-mongering politicians, advertising, and definitions of success and winning, to live a life of reaction, always running hot or cold after something our illusions of ownership convince us it is possible to possess.

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One response to “11. Live temperately

  1. Christine Maynard

    There are some great lines in here. I wish reading the authors/sages you mention was mandatory middle school reading. I knew a French fighter pilot from Versailles who flew with St. Exupery. It took me a few times to understand who he was referencing when he spoke his friend’s name, gutturally, “San ex Zoo Pay’ Ray!” Have your grandkids seen the recent release of The Little Prince? It is a beautiful transmission of the book’s essence about living warmly and the importance of feelings. Thanks for another stimulating and heart warming post.

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