Monday, October 7, 2019

When Fortune Turns Against You: Lessons from Boethius

Yom Kippur 2019

Lady Fortune and Her Wheel
One of the forgotten great philosophers of the past is Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (A.D. 480 to 524)—commonly known as Boethius. Scholars have called him "the last of the Romans and the first of the scholastic philosophers," as he is a sort of intellectual bridge between Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Boethius' final and greatest work is The Consolation of Philosophy, a masterful philosophical treatise addressing the timeless question of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to good people? And why is there suffering and evil in a world supposedly ruled by a benevolent and omnipotent God?

The question was not just a theoretical one for Boethius. After a long and successful career in Rome at the service of Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great, he was accused of treason, imprisoned and eventually executed. Boethius wrote the Consolation during his imprisonment while awaiting execution.

At the beginning of the book, Boethius laments his fate and impending death. Gone are the days when Fortune favored him. She has now “changed her cheating face” and resolutely turned against him. But then, a resplendent woman appears before him. This is “Lady Philosophy,” a personification of philosophy who begins an imaginary dialogue with Boethius and proceeds to console him and help him make sense of Fortune’s bad turn against him.

Anyone who has gone through a difficult season in life will find much of value in The Consolation of Philosophy. Lady Philosophy's discourse is essentially a profound commentary on God’s benevolent Providence as expressed in Romans 8:28: “and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

For me, reading Boethius was an intensely personal experience. 2018 was the worst year of my life. It was a year of betrayals and a year of exile.

At the end of 2017, I had decided it was time to settle down. I purchased my first home and looked forward to a bit of stability in my life after many years of wanderings. But three months later, without warning, I suddenly lost my job at the place where I had taught for the past six years—a place that I had come to love as my spiritual community, family, and home. For no coherent reason, a new rector ruthlessly terminated the employment of three lay faculty, including myself. I was forced to relocate and start my life anew. Witnessing a man betray his own priesthood and spiritual fatherhood over the people who had been entrusted to him was devastating.

As bad as it was, this betrayal was soon dwarfed by an even greater one. In the midst of this turmoil, a person who had become a very close friend seriously misled me romantically, then became more and more unresponsive, disrespectful and distant until friendship was no longer possible. Eventually, she cut off all contact and completely disappeared from my life, just as I was going through the throes of leaving my home and life behind, starting over in a new, unfamiliar place.

The year was excruciating. I reached the bottom of this vale of tears on Yom Kippur of 2018—one year ago. Overwhelmed by sadness in the midst of this painful physical, emotional, and spiritual exile, I could wholeheartedly join my voice and tears to Boethius’ and cry out with him: “Fortune has raged against me” (1.4).

As I read the Consolation, it seemed as if Lady Philosophy was speaking directly to me. Here are a few of the lessons that I learned from her wisdom.

1. The real exile occurs in your soul, not in your circumstances.
“Indeed how far from your native land you are! And yet you haven’t been expelled; you’ve simply strayed away. If you prefer to think of yourself as banished, then you should realize you’ve banished yourself.” (1.5)
As much as Boethius has suffered, Lady Philosophy gently reprimands him for wallowing in self-pity. He is indeed in exile—but not just a physical one. The worst kind of exile is the spiritual and psychological one that occurs when we let ourselves get dragged down by adverse circumstances. This is what really harms Boethius and makes his healing impossible as long as he holds on to it. Lady Philosophy tells him: “since such a storm of passions has come upon you and you are pulled about by conflicting feelings of pain, anger, and sorrow, you can’t, in such a mind, be given stronger remedies” (1.5).

Philosophy must begin with a “gentler remedy.” She must first pull Boethius out of his self-pity by asking him a few questions about his view of the world, of God, and of himself. I had to follow him along the same path, rejecting self-pity and rediscovering God’s providence in my life, even in the midst of desolation.

2. Don’t forget who you are.
“Now I know the other, in fact the greatest, cause of your disease: you no longer know what you are." (1.6)
Boethius, as it turns out, believes that God governs the world and steers its course. But he has forgotten what is the “end of all things or the goal to which all nature strives.” Worse, he has forgotten who he is: he doesn’t believe that God cares for him personally. And so, Philosophy remarks, “since you’re overwhelmed by forgetfulness of your nature, you grieve at being in exile and deprived of your goods” (1.6). God’s benevolent providence is a concept that Boethius theoretically accepts. But this knowledge scarcely helps him cope with his loss and grief, while “base and wicked men are powerful and happy” (1.6).

Lady Philosophy must remind Boethius who he is and what is his end. Likewise, we must remember who we are and what is our own end. Life is not easy. People will let us down. As painful as life can be, there is a reason and purpose behind even the most distressing experience. The worst betrayal is not meaningless, but has a purpose within God’s benevolent and perfect plan for your life.

3. Everything you have has been entrusted to you for a time. So be grateful.
“Do you really value a happiness that will pass away? Is present Fortune dear to you when she can’t be trusted to stay and when she brings grief as she departs?” (2.1)
Boethius’ problem is that he is fixated on the passing goods of this world, thinking that they are a prerequisite for happiness. But the passing goods of this world are precisely that: passing. They come and go at the whims of Fortune. Why, then, do we think that her whims will bring us lasting happiness? Here Dame Fortune herself offers wise words of advice:
“As one who borrowed the possessions of another, you owe me thanks; you do not have the right to complain as if you had completely lost the things that belonged to you. Wealth, honors, and other things of that sort are mine by right; they are slaves that belong to me and come along with me, and so they depart with me. Let me tell you plainly: if the things you are mourning over had been yours in the first place, you would never have lost them.” (2.2)
Fortune is fickle. She doesn’t give us anything permanently. She merely “lends” us good gifts for a time. We do not own anything. Throughout life, God sends us a pyle of good things. We are to be good custodians of them while remembering that they do not belong to us. These good things may grant us a glimpse of happiness, but they are not the highest good and are thus unable to make us fully happy.

The lesson to be learned: Remember and appreciate “how many and how great are the sources of your happiness” (2.3). Be grateful for everything that God has given you—even if just for a time and season.

4. Blessedness lies within you.
“You see, there is no situation that is miserable unless you think it so. Likewise, every condition is blessed when a man endures it with an untroubled spirit… O mortals, why do you seek outside yourselves for the happiness that has been placed within you?” (2.4)
Wealth. Beauty. Fame. Power. Honor. Pleasure.

A job. A home. A friend. Human love.

All these are but passing goods, perpetually at the mercy of Fortune. What, then, can escape her reach? Our intellect. Our will. Our soul. Our self—if we are able to turn away from temporal goods and towards the highest Good. And for this, paradoxically, the fickle wheel of fortune can help us—especially when she appears to turn against us. For it is precisely when we lose the goods of this world that we are prompted—or forced—to turn to the eternal Good hidden deep within us.

5. Fortune is more truthful when she seems most harsh.
“Indeed, I think Fortune is of more benefit when she is adverse than when she brings prosperity, for in the latter case she approaches under the guise of happiness. When she seems kind, she lies; but when she shows herself fickle and unstable, she is truthful. In the first case she deceives; in the latter she instructs. In the first instance she uses the appearance of false goods to bind the minds of men that enjoy them; in the second she frees these minds by the knowledge of the fragility of happiness. And so, in her first role you see that Fortune is without substance, impermanent, and always uncertain of herself; in her second role she is sober, well girded, and made wise by the experiences of adversity. In short, happy Fortune uses her allurements to draw men astray from the true Good, but adverse Fortune, for the most part, uses her claw to drag men back to the things that are good.” (2.8)
Lady Philosophy here is providing, as it were, a commentary on Jesus’ Beatitudes. While the version in the Gospel of Matthew is better known, Luke’s version adds woes that depict an “inversion of reality” similar to Lady Philosophy’s discourse:
20 Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24 But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. "Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Lk 6:20-26)
Why this “inversion of reality,” as it were, where hardships turn into blessings, and apparent blessings turn into curses? Because apparent blessings lure us into the complacency of trusting in the goods of this world, while hardships awaken us to the reality that they are but fleeting vanity. Hardships, moreover, force us to turn towards the Highest Good—the only good capable of bringing us lasting satisfaction.

6. Seek the Highest Good and source of all blessedness.
“God, who is the most high, is completely full of the highest and most perfect Good. But we have concluded that the perfect Good is true blessedness, and thus true blessedness must reside in the most high God.” (3.10)
Riches, honors, power, glory, pleasures. Men seek these things because “they think that through them they will acquire sufficiency, respect, power, fame, and joy.” Yet these are but shadows of true blessedness, faint echoes of the long-lost bliss of Eden. The reality behind them is God, the perfect Good and source of all blessedness. Since blessedness is divinity, men acquire blessedness by acquiring divinity. This participation in the divine nature (“theosis”) is man’s ultimate end (2 Pet 1:4).

But the way to blessedness is arduous. Paradoxically, even though riches, honors, power, glory, pleasures reflect aspects of God (Boethius calls them “limbs of blessedness”), seeking these things do not draw us closer to Him. The way to God—and to lasting happiness—must be the way of purifying, purgatorial suffering. It must be the way of the cross. This is why Fortune’s harsh blows, contrary to all appearances, actually propel us towards our ultimate blessedness and final end.

7. Don’t worry about those who hurt you.
“It’s obvious that an injury done to someone creates misery for the doer of the deed and not for the sufferer of it.” (4.4)
Lady Philosophy has led Boethius to the realization that lasting happiness can only be found in the highest Good—in God. But Boethius is still troubled by a pressing question: “if the ruler of the universe is in fact good, how can evil exist or go unpunished?” Worse, if often seems that “virtue, not vice, is punished.” (4.1)

It is all fine and well to trust in the goodness and providence of God, and even to believe that bad turns of Fortune can draw us nearer to Him. But what about those who betray us and seem to go on happily with their lives? Lady Philosophy explains that despite all appearances, those who wrong others wrong themselves the most. “Good men are truly powerful and evil men weak” (4.1), for “goodness always produces rewards” and “wickedness always brings its own punishment” (4.2). Wronging others brings more misery to the wrongdoer than to the one who has been wronged.

This is why we must forgive those who harm us. Forgiving is not the same as giving up on justice. Don't get me wrong: Betraying someone’s trust is bad. It is very bad. Yet justice is God’s job, not ours. God will render to every one according to their works (Rom 2:6). Those who are ruthless with encounter ruthlessness. Those who are unresponsive will encounter unresponsiveness. Those who betray will experience betrayal. Do not worry if they don’t repent or make amends for their misdeeds and appear to go on unpunished. Lady Philosophy goes on to explain that since divine punishment is a type of restraint and correction of bad behavior, then “the wicked are more unfortunate when they are granted unjust impunity than when they are punished with just retribution.” (4.4)

Forgive, and leave justice to God. There are better and more useful ways of engaging your thoughts than to fret against those who have harmed you.

8. Learn from your mistakes (and those of others).
“To some men, Providence distributes a mixture of good and bad fortune according to the nature of their soul. Some Providence troubles, so they won’t be spoiled by a long period of happiness. Others Providence vexes with hardships, so they can strengthen the virtues of their souls by the use and practice of patience... Providence uses sorrows to teach these men to understand themselves.” (4.5)
Every affliction is an opportunity to engage in a serene yet earnest examination of conscience, learn from mistakes of the past, and better conform ourselves to God’s character: Why did this happen to me? Am I reaping what I have sown? How should this experience change me?

Personally, I have learned many lessons from the hardships of the past year. I have also reflected on my past failures and vowed, with God’s help, not to repeat them.

I have learned to be more cautious before entrusting myself to another—no matter how eager—until that person has proven to be worthy of trust.

I have learned that goodness, kindness, generosity and selflessness are far more important than keen intelligence and a strong will.

I have learned that activism for any cause, however noble, is of little value if you step on people in the process.

I have learned the value of authenticity. If I’m going to embrace some ideals, I had better live up to them before proclaiming them on rooftops. The person who misled me in an extraordinarily irresponsible way then treated me with extreme disrespect wrote a thesis on responsibility and claims that her life mission is to "cultivate community" and “humanize culture” (I am not making this up). Few things are more jarring and scandalous than incoherence between ideals and behavior. With God’s help, I will strive never to be guilty of this.

I have learned the value of loyalty. With God’s help, I will never mislead another. If I damage or wound a friendship, I will take responsibility for fixing it. I will not be a coward and run away from ruins I've created. Most especially, I will never be intentionally unresponsive towards a friend reaching out to me, as it is one of the most disrespectful and hurtful things you can do to someone.

9. All shall be well.
“Since all fortune, either pleasant or bitter, is given to reward or test the good or to punish or correct the bad, it is entirely good, since it is either just or useful.” (4.7)
Do not worry when Fortune appears to turn against you. Even when she does, she cannot harm you. As Lady Philosophy concludes, all fortune is good to the good, and bad to the bad: “it is clear that the fortune of those who either possess virtue or pursue it or are acquiring it is entirely good, whatever it is, and that it is all bad to those who remain in wickedness” (4.7).

All fortune is guided by divine providence for the sake of ultimately establishing goodness and justice in the world. Our task, then—regardless of the whims of Fortune—is to pursue goodness and justice at all times, even when it involves embracing the cross. This is the only sure way to reach divine blessedness.

In this period of the Days of Awe, it is a fitting time to search our conscience, repent of our sins of the past year, make amends with those whom we have hurt, and conform our lives to the character of the One who is the source of all goodness and blessedness.