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Navigating our way through life is a perennial challenge. But does it have to be? One can discover what the most remarkable thinkers had to say on virtually any topic within minutes. Although read any book on living a good life, and you’ll find what seem to be contradictions.
Take this passage from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius,
The above quote inspired Ryan Holiday to write the bestseller The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday writes, “The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
However, later in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote,
At times, the obstacle is the way, and we are wise to go around at other times. The difficulty often arises in knowing when to do what.
My interview with Carl McColman (author of Eternal Heart) revealed how wisdom is often paradoxical. According to McColman, “One of the things about mystical spirituality is it profoundly paradoxical, which means almost anything you say, you could probably get away with saying its opposite.”
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr highlighted the wisdom of knowing the difference in his famous serenity prayer. Although originally longer, today it’s commonly quoted as follows:
Similarly, 2,000 years prior, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught,
The wisdom to know the difference applies to nearly every decision. It’s even a central aspect of how the Stoics defined wisdom.
In the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes of Laertes wrote the Stoics defined wisdom as knowing what is good (virtue), what is bad (vice), and what is indifferent. For this reason, Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself,
Navigating life requires the wisdom to know the difference. Is this an obstacle to go through or around? Is it something under my control or not under my control? Is this a virtue or a vice? Before we can “become indifferent to what makes no difference,” we must have the wisdom to know the difference.
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