Your Most Important Victory
For Epictetus, then, ambition should not be focused on externals but on internals. A Stoic’s greatest, most impressive triumph, he said, is not over other people or enemy armies but over oneself — over our limitations, our tempers, our egos, our petty desires. We all have these impulses; what sets us apart is if we rise above them.
~Lives of the Stoics, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
When I moved to my current location nearly 5 years ago, it was right in the middle of the church softball season. I had just left a place where I was playing twice a week, and I was really looking forward to connecting with some new people in the church by playing one of my favorite games.
Since the end of my 8th grade year (in 1995!), I have been playing softball every summer with a brief stoppage from 2008–2011 due to a lack of access. During that time, I’ve been on a handful of championship teams, and ones that came pretty close. One year, we had to win three games in one day, including two against the team that defeated us earlier in the double elimination tournament to put us in the “loser’s bracket”. It was an exhausting, but ultimately triumphant day.
But, somehow, I don’t think Epictetus would be impressed. Mostly because softball didn’t exist in his day, but also because of today’s quote from Lives of the Stoics. As Epictetus argues, our most impressive victories are not over our opponents, but over ourselves.
Sure, there are times in our lives when we will be faced with an opponent. Whether it’s a sports competition, a card game around the kitchen table, or something much more serious, we will face conflict in our lives. Conflict that we will want to win, and we may well do so. A hard-fought victory is one that we can enjoy. We also may lose that conflict — someone always loses in situations like this. But the most important conflicts we will face are the ones within ourselves.
I wish I could say that we will all have life figured out. That we wouldn’t face any difficult situations. But growth happens in such times. If you want to grow as a person, you are going to face inner conflict. Even if you don’t want to grow, you will anyway, so you might as well be ready for it.
At the end of the day, the greatest victory we can have in our lives is over ourselves. Over the part of us that pushes us towards devolving or destruction. We don’t intended to do it, but there is a whole lot of self-sabotage that happens in our lives. There are times when our emotions and our gut reactions will get the better of us. There are times when we will immediately lash out, only to regret it later.
It’s only as we train in our lives that we can overcome such things. And I think it is for this reason that we should consider philosophy in the first place.
Now, I know what some people may think. “A pastor advocating for the study of philosophy?” And, yes, of course, I would advocate for philosophy. Philosophy and faith are not diametrically opposed to one another. Philosophy is the process of asking and reflecting on questions about life. And, ultimately, if it’s not actionable, what good is it? We can certainly do philosophy through the lens of our faith. I see no conflict whatsoever.
In fact, I would argue that the Holy Spirit can work in our lives through the reflection that philosophy brings us. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth, and truth shapes us into who God is calling us to be. The inner conflicts, and inner victories, come to us, not through sheer force of will, but through the grace of God at work in our lives — encouraging us, building us up, shaping us as the potter working the clay.
In the end, the most impressive victories we are going to have in life are the victory over the inner self. Because those are the conflicts that are going to truly shape who we are in the days to come.