“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” — Albert Einstein
This article first appeared on the PBS affiliated Website This Emotional Life.
Every so often I stop to reflect upon the seemingly random series of events that have led my life to its current point. In times like these my mind rarely gravitates toward any single individuals who left lasting impressions, positive or negative, but instead remains fixed on the patterns that have emerged over time. Make no mistake, I still search for a seemingly insignificant or banal event from my past that might offer some magical context to help define the person I have become, especially in light of my newfound fatherhood. And yet, while I am not holding out for such an epiphany any time soon for myself, such a revelation could do wonders for my son as he crawls faster and faster toward the conclusion of his first year.
At the age of eleven, I read my first Greek myth, and I was hooked. Eleven years later, I graduated from college with a major in classical studies, a discipline I have described as familiarization with an abundance of Greek myths experienced in a written rather than spoken format, in a language that dates back seven to ten thousand years. From this historical depository of dactylic hexameter and Socratic dialogue, a few key tenets have remained permanently etched in my brain, and it is not uncommon for me to draw upon these scraps of wisdom on any given day. While often overshadowed by the technological advances that largely define our fast-paced modern society, I continually find that those bits of knowledge I learned twenty years ago are more than enough to help me navigate through even the most baffling of days.
“Victory comes to men in turns.”
This famous quote from a traditional English translation of Homer’s Iliad is a source of comfort and hope in troubled times as well as a gentle reminder for us all to strive for humility at any stage. Such a perspective, however, has the greatest effect when it originates from within, and rarely will these words provide much use to an individual flying at the top of life’s many pinnacles, or to another plunging toward the contrasting depths. Yet I find myself contemplating the ways in which I can protect my son from the latter, even though I am mindful that I should focus instead on appropriate perspectives in response to either or both examples.
Life’s vacillations are not always within our control, but when the cause of a sudden drop originates directly from something over which we have a certain power, it is then that we must hope to learn from past mistakes. And yet, as a parent I am all too aware that my own life lessons (of which there are many) should not serve as hard and fast familial edicts under which my son will be obliged to exist. Rather, I hope to impart a loose set of ideals drawn from both my experiences and the lessons learned, in such a way that my son will be able to recognize the footsteps of my past in any dilemma he may come to face. Said differently, my son can only learn from my mistakes if he understands them. While this will never insulate him from sad moments, the best for which I can hope is that it will help to light the way.
Be Mindful of the Absence of Knowledge
At the end of Plato’s Apology, Socrates accepts his fate (the death penalty) and thinks about the future of his three sons. In speaking of events to occur after his execution, Socrates hopes that others will instill an understanding between good and evil in his children, and that these three boys will come to embrace virtue. In an earlier passage, however, Socrates compares wisdom between two men, and ultimately finds that the one who recognizes all he does not know is wiser than the other who is unaware of his limitations. Just like the example from Homer, while both may possess the same exact knowledge on a particular subject – nothing – it is the process, not the conclusion, which is most instructive.
Throughout my transition over the past five months from hospital administrator to health care advisor, no other lesson has rung so true in relation to this current climate of health care reform. Straddled with thousands of pages of legislation, regulations, judicial determination, and dictum, today’s health care leaders are better served to identify that which they do not know, rather than focus on a particular area of expertise. I have found that my greatest recent challenge comes not in reading the abundance of materials that federal and state officials publish on an almost daily basis, nor is it keeping straight the multitude of alliances, agencies and programs that provide leadership for the industry in which I hope to establish and maintain my professional career. Instead, it is the struggle to simply understand my son’s health insurance policy and its nexus with the ordinary medical bills generated on his behalf.
A term I first learned in the context of Greek philosophy, “sophrosyne” deals with balance, prudence, and moderation. In antiquity, the word had a particular connection to the phrase “Know Thyself.” Throughout a lifetime of moments that marked the patterns of ups and downs in my life within the context of instances when I knew I was on a path of confusion or uncertainty, my greatest comfort has always been to continue striving to “know myself.” This has always remained true, even if the person about whom I had such intimate knowledge was often the crux of the problem at hand.
Now here I sit, with over forty years of information at my disposal, still not quite sure where to begin when it comes to serving as a role model for my son. Luckily, I am not obligated to make this decision today, and instead I balance this laughing infant on my knee, marveling at his joyful obliviousness to the questions that have plagued me this morning. In my haste to teach him my secrets, I find instead that he has taught me. Let the lessons wait. Enjoy the moments as they come.