I recently stumbled across the book The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, by Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus.
A friend of mine once told me she uses it as a sort of oracle: she flips to a random page to see what it has to say that day. I tried it this morning, and damned if it wasn’t spot on:
“Be Careful About the Company You Keep,” it says.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. A friend of mine brought it up in a challenging (and rather confronting) conversation the other day. It’s an uncomfortable idea. I like the idea that I can hang out with anyone who is good and fun. And, you know, I don’t want to be judgey person. But, despite its old-timey voice, this passage packs some serious punches.
It seems to be the ancient version of the “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” rule.
Perhaps it’s time to be more discerning for my own good. And maybe this is the path to being a better human being and living up to my potential in this life. Agree or disagree, it’s worth mulling over. Here’s the passage:
“Regardless of what others profess, they may not truly live by spiritual values. Be careful whom you associate with. It is human to imitate the habits of those with whom we interact. We inadvertently adopt their interests, their opinions, their values, and their habit of interpreting events. Though many people mean well, they can just the same have a deleterious influence on you because they are undisciplined about what is worthy and what isn’t.
Just because some people are nice to you, doesn’t mean you should spend time with them. Just because they seek you out and are interested in your affairs doesn’t mean you should associate with them. Be selective about whom you take on as friends, colleagues, and neighbors. All of these people can affect your destiny. The world is full of agreeable and talented folk. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. But remember that our moral influence is a two-way street, and we should thus make sure by our own thoughts, words, and deeds to be a positive influence on those we deal with. The real test of personal excellence lies in the attention we give to the often neglected small details of our conduct.
Regularly ask yourself, ‘How are my thoughts, words, and deeds affecting my spouse, my neighbor, my child, my employer, my subordinates, my fellow citizens? Am I doing my part to contribute to the spiritual progress of all with whom I come in contact?’ Make it your business to draw out the best in other by being an exemplar yourself.”
Boom. That’s a high bar.
That’s what makes it so uncomfortable. When I call myself to my highest, I call others around me to do the same. And vice versa. It’s up to me to be discerning for my highest good, and the good of my peers.
Okay, so how do we actually do this in life? To clear it up for myself, I came up with these three basic steps:
1) Get clear on who I aspire to be, and get intentional.
This whole thing is basically impossible to pull off if I don’t know who I am. Not that my vision doesn’t evolve, but for now I can sit down and write out my five most important values, and five characteristics that I aspire to be, and start noticing those attributes in others. No small task, I know. But this is probably precisely why most of us make these choices so unconsciously.
2) Let go of people who don’t meet my standards.
This doesn’t mean being a jerk or being judgmental, or talking smack about people. I get to be careful here about self-righteousness, the ugly step-sister of low-self esteem. I can be comfortable in my values and the values to which I aspire, and at the same time respect others for wherever they are in their journey. I can let go of people by exercising my boundaries, without taking on guilt. If people take separations personally, that’s on them. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it may be necessary for growth, self-respect, and integrity. And there are certain important limits with this kind of clearing, like time spent with family.
But starting to clean house can illuminate all kinds of gremlins in the shadows, like codependency and weak boundaries. This can be a good time for most of us to start reading up on these topics, or even seeking professional help to navigate our way through.
3) Actively seek out people who inspire, uplift and call me to my best.
This also doesn’t mean that I become needy or clingy with people I look up to. Nor does it mean chasing after people I think are “cool” for any number of superficial reasons. It requires me to hold strong in my own self worth, and to bring that to the table with equals and peers. It means finding and sticking with friends who inspire growth in me, and vice versa. And it requires a deep honesty with myself about who I am and what I really want.
All of this means knowing that I’m worth it, and that my sticking to my values is worth holding uncomfortable boundaries. It’s not an easy road, and it requires a good deal of checking in with oneself. But Epictetus is right, “The real test of personal excellence lies in the attention we give to the often neglected small details of our conduct.”
The more I grow, the more I know this to be true. We tend to rise or fall to the level of our peers, so it serves us greatly to choose wisely.
Author: Erin McMorrow
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Wikimedia Commons