The Life Force of Temperance

Neither too hot nor too cold is what Temperance means. Neither too fast nor too slow. It’s all about moderation. About self-control. About being able to say no to short-term rewards in exchange for a greater reward in the future. It’s also about knowing when enough is enough. 

I’ll explain this by telling you a story about a man by the name of Jack London.

When he was thirteen, Jack taught himself to sail. At fifteen, he borrowed three-hundred dollars to buy a small sailboat, the ‘Razzle Dazzle,’ and became the most successful oyster pirate in Northern California. Needing to earn money to help his poor family, Jack went out at night on his boat and stole oysters from the companies who grew them along the shores of San Francisco Bay. He then sold them at the fish markets in Oakland. At seventeen, he quit school and joined a crew of seal hunters and sailed to Japan. At twenty-one, he traveled to Canada in search for gold and riches. Jack loved to read and write, and by the age of thirty, he was the most successful writer in America.

Pretty cool, right? Just imagine what Jack’s Instagram or Snapchat would have looked like had social media existed when he was growing up. Who wouldn’t want to live a life like Jack’s?

But here’s what happened…

Jack blazed hotter than a wildfire and kept pushing himself faster and faster…harder and harder, like a merry-go-round whizzing at breakneck speed with its horses panting and covered in white foamy sweat. Jack wanted more – more fame, more ‘Likes’ - and he wanted them now! And because he couldn’t wait, he made himself sick, drank too much alcohol, and died at the age of forty.

Before I tell you what this means, I’ll tell you another story.

This one is about a boy named Alex, better known as Alexander the Great whom we’ve talked about earlier.

Alexander was born in Greece in 356 B.C. to King Philip II and Queen Olympias. At age 12 he showed impressive courage when he tamed the wild horse Bucephalus who became Alexander’s battle companion. At age 20, he became King of Macedonia and began a campaign for world domination. In thirteen short years, Alexander defeated the mighty Persian Empire, conquered Egypt, and ruled over the largest empire in the ancient world.

Also pretty cool. 

But here’s what happened to this guy.

Alexander kept pushing himself and his troops harder and harder. At one point, his exhausted soldiers refused to fight further. They told Alexander that a truly great leader knows when it’s time to stop fighting. 

“Do not go past the mark you aimed for,” said author Robert Greene. “In victory learn when to stop.” 

Say your school’s football team is trouncing its opponent 70-0 at the end of the third quarter. There is no way the opposing team can win. Victory for your school is certain. Suppose you’re the captain of your team… would you instruct your players to ease-off, or continue crushing the opponent? 

Alexander decided to keep on crushing. Not only greedy, but also full of himself, he allowed his success to go to his head to the point where he (like Commodus) thought himself a God. Alex kept fighting, partied hard (just like Jack), drank too much, died at the age of thirty-two, and his empire collapsed.

Here’s what I don’t get, and I hope you can help me figure out. 

As I wrote before, Alexander was tutored by none other than the wise philosopher Aristotle, who was a student of another great philosopher by the name of Plato. It was Plato who warned everybody about the dangers of not having self-control, or temperance. He explained himself by writing a simple story with a hidden meaning called ‘The Allegory of the Chariot.’   

Every man, Plato said, is made up of three parts. The first is the logical, thinking part, which Plato called the “charioteer,” or conductor, who is in charge of driving and controlling the chariot. The other two parts inside every man are the horses that pull the chariot - one black, the other white. The black horse represents our emotions. The white horse represents our spiritedness, combining our physical and mental strength, and our courage.

Let’s summarize these 3 parts and connect them to the Energies discussed in Chapter 9

The King = Brain = Charioteer.

The Warrior = Strength and Courage = White Horse.

The Wild Boy = Emotions = Black Horse.

Remember what Confucius said? That one should never give a sword to a man who can’t dance? Confucius was referring to a man who is not connected to his body and his emotions, and, therefore, can’t control his black horse. It’s the man who, when angry, doesn’t take the time to understand where the anger is coming from and what it wants from him but simply lashes out with violence. In other words, instead of simmering, he blows hot and burns others.

I told you earlier that having and showing emotions is a good thing but not so if you allow them to take over. The black horse of your emotions must always be under the wise and calm control of your charioteer who is your inner-King bringing order to your life.

The white horse, on the other hand, is very important because it helps you get what you want out of life. It is essential to achieve your goals. It is your fierce inner-warrior who doesn’t run when the going gets tough. It’s the excitement you feel when you are doing something you love to do. But if you allow the white horse to run out of control, you will end up like Jack London and Alexander the - not so - Great.

You’ve probably heard the expression “Hold your horses.” It was first used about 2700 years ago by the Greek poet Homer in ‘The Iliad’ in reference to a guy by the name of Antilochus who was driving like a maniac in a chariot race. 

What I don’t get is this: why didn’t Alexander pay attention to his wise teacher, Aristotle, and learn all this stuff about charioteers and horses? Being Greek, I am sure Aristotle also told him about Icarus, the boy who didn’t listen to his father’s warnings and plunged to his death after he soared too close to the Sun. Why didn’t Alexander connect the dots? If you ask me, Alexander must have been distracted or half-asleep during class which I hope is not what you’re doing right now but paying close attention so you don’t make the same mistakes.

Aristotle was trying to teach Alexander to know when enough is enough.

Humanity and our planet are in big trouble right now because we’ve forgotten this important lesson. We bite more than we can chew. We buy more stuff than we need. We consume like locusts. We are intemperate.

In all my walks out in nature I have never seen a bird’s nest that’s two stories high and has a hot-tub and a 60-inch plasma T.V. Have you? 

I have never seen an obese, out-of-breath squirrel leaning against a tree, unable to keep up with her fit friends because she ate more acorns than were necessary to keep her body fit. 

I’ve never seen a bear hauling a ton of trash and dumping it in a river. 

And while I have seen examples of wild exuberance, like a male peacock’s plumage or a buck’s towering antlers or the majestic tusks of a bull elephant, these accessories are never excessive to the point of crippling those animals with stress or fatigue. 

All I’ve seen in nature is balance. 

Maybe that’s why I also haven’t seen a therapist’s couch, a drug rehab clinic, nor a prison in nature. You only need those when things are out of whack or unbalanced. And the only ones who are unbalanced are humans which is probably what made British philosopher Bertrand Russell describe planet Earth as the lunatic asylum of the Universe where the inmates have taken over.

Think of climate change for a second, perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever confronted. Many people say the reason Earth is heating up is because we’re burning fossil fuels and that all we need to do is ban fossil fuels and everything will be alright. That’s the same thing as if our obese, out-of-breath squirrel said that acorns are the problem and should be banned (I can picture her protesting on a tree stump with a sign held high that reads: "Down with acorns!")

The problem, dear squirrel, is not with the acorns… the problem is you, or your unwillingness to control your appetite.

Same goes for climate change. Our planet is not warming up because of fossil fuels but because we humans seem incapable (unwilling, really) to limit our consumption to what we really need. And it’s not all humans, but mostly those who live in rich countries. Take the United States as an example. 

It has been estimated that if everyone in the world consumed like the average American, we would need 4 planet Earths to sustain us. Last I checked, we only have one, and it’s struggling to keep up with our intemperate appetites.

Here’s the funny-not-so-funny thing, though.

For all the stuff Americans consume, it doesn’t appear to be making them any happier. Based on population, people in the United States take antidepressants at the highest rate in the world. The country has one of the highest levels of stress and anxiety in the world and ranks 34 - out of 183 countries - in suicide rates.

It appears money doesn't buy happiness, and excess makes us stressed, depressed, and anxious. 

But we already knew that more than 2000 years ago thanks to the wise person who wrote “Nothing in Excess” on the walls of the ancient Temple of Apollo in the Greek town of Delphi.

“You can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place,” said author Mary Ellen Edmunds.

Think of the iPhone. As I write this, Apple is releasing its newest version and people are rushing to the nearest Apple store to get their hands on one. Less than 20 years ago, the iPhone didn’t exist, and as far as I can recall, the world kept spinning just like it has for 4.5 Billion years. 

Apple was clever. They created a need where no need existed and turned a useless object into a necessity. That’s why we can’t get enough.

Guess where the majority of discarded phones end up... Landfills! The United States, for example, produces more electronic waste than any other country. Every year, 9.4 million tons of electronics get thrown away by Americans, which is almost exactly what American dogs and cats poop each year.

Earlier in the book I told you that I think myself luckier than all the multi-billionaires out there because I know one thing they apparently don’t: I know I have enough. Roman philosopher Seneca said a poor man is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more. 

Aristotle was the one who came up with the idea of the Golden Mean which is basically the middle point between two extremes. It is similar to the concept of Zhōngyōng, or ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ in Chinese Confucianism. Zhōng means neither bent one way or another. Yōng means “unchanging.” 

Neither too hot nor too cold.

Midpoint between being reckless (like Jack London), and never daring greatly in life, lies Courage. 

Alexander and Commodus thought themselves to be like gods. This is called hubris, which to ancient Greeks was one of the greatest sins. Hubris, or being consumed by the Dragon of Toxic Pride, is the extreme at the opposite end of thinking oneself worthless. In this case, the golden mean is modesty, which basically means knowing your worth, but neither exaggerating nor deflating it.

Prudent or wise action, for example, is the sweet-spot between indecisiveness, or not acting at all, and being impulsive, or acting without thinking, like putting a Slinky inside an electrical outlet or not minding the fuel gauge while flying a plane. 

Between stuffing yourself all day with cheeseburgers and French fries, and eating nothing but raw seaweed, is a balanced diet. Being physically fit is the golden mean between being frail and bulging with so much muscle you can barely move. 

Temperance is the Golden Mean and goes hand in hand with patience. 

Often, the best things in life come to us if we just wait long enough. Remember Gandhi? It took him over ten years of patient struggle to see his dream of an independent India come true.

Veruca Salt, on the other hand, was a very impatient girl. She’s one of the characters in the book ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ by Roald Dahl. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do.

The story is about five young children who are the lucky winners of five golden tickets to visit Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The tickets were hidden inside the wrappers of Wonka’s famous chocolate bars. 

One of the children was Veruca Salt who got her ticket only because her father was very rich. When newspapers announced that Veruca was the second child to find a ticket, reporters went to her house to interview the family. 

Here’s what Veruca’s father said when reporters asked him how they had found the ticket:

“You see,” he said, “as soon as my little girl told me that she simply had to have one of those Golden Tickets, I went out into the town and started buying all the Wonka candy bars I could lay my hands on. Thousands of them, I must have bought. Hundreds of thousands! But three days went by and we had no luck. Oh, it was terrible! My little Veruca got more and more upset each day, and every time I went home, she would scream at me. ‘Where’s my Golden Ticket! I want my Golden Ticket!’ And she would lie for hours on the floor, kicking and yelling in the most disturbing way. I just hated to see my little girl feeling unhappy like that, so I vowed I would keep up the search until I got her what she wanted.”

Veruca finally got her ticket and joined the other four children, and some of their parents, on the tour through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. 

Once inside, the group visited the Nut Room where one hundred squirrels sat on high stools around a large table. On the table were mounds and mounds of walnuts which the squirrels were busy cracking to extract the nuts out of the shells. When Veruca saw them, she told her mother, “Hey Mummy! Get me one of those squirrels!”

“Don’t be silly, sweetheart,” her mother said. “These all belong to Mr. Wonka.”

“I don’t care about that!” shouted Veruca. “I want one. All I’ve got at home is two dogs and four cats and six bunny rabbits and two parakeets and three canaries and a green parrot and a turtle and a bowl of goldfish and a cage of white mice and a silly old hamster! I want a squirrel!”

At this point, Mr. Salt, Veruca’s father, stepped forward. “Very well, Wonka,” he said importantly, taking out a wallet full of money, “how much d’you want for one of these crazy squirrels? Name your price.”

“They’re not for sale,” Mr. Wonka answered. “She can’t have one.”

“Who says I can’t!” shouted Veruca. “I’m going to grab me a squirrel this very minute!” 

You may have seen the movie based on the book, and in this part of the story, Veruca starts singing:

If I don't get the things I am after

I'm going to scream!

I want the works,

I want the whole works!

Presents and prizes and sweets and surprises in all shapes and sizes,

And now!

Don't care how… I want it now!

Because Veruca was impatient and wouldn’t take “NO” for an answer, she fell into a garbage chute and disappeared from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. 

If you ask me, I’d say the world today is full of Verucas.

Often, in life, we don’t get what we want, just like my stepmother couldn’t pursue her dream of moving out West to help children at an Indian reservation because she had to care for her sick parents. There’s always a good reason for not getting our way all the time. You’ll learn much about yourself and other people when that happens. 

William Kamkwamba couldn’t continue his education like he wanted which I’m sure made him sad and upset… perhaps even angry. But William didn’t punch a teacher in the face, nor hurl a desk across his classroom. Neither did he shut himself inside his room to mope or waste his time ‘grooving’ with his buddies. Like Greta, he harnessed his anger (his black horse) and used it to guide the white horse of his spirit toward that rickety library to educate himself about the science of windmills; knowledge which ultimately saved his life, his family, and his village.

When seven year old Benjamin Ball didn’t get a biodegradable straw for his lemonade at the cafe, he did not punch the cashier in the face. Instead, he chose love and wrote his famous letter to the store owner. Like a true hero, he knew it wasn’t about him and all about the sea turtles he wanted to protect.

It is when you get rejected or don’t get what you want that the black horse of your anger will try to control your reaction. It is also when the white horse of your courage will grow cold with disappointment and refuse to keep going.

On the other hand, when you do get what you want… perhaps even more than you dreamed of (like Jack London and Alexander the Great), the white horse will try to bolt and drag your chariot down the slippery road of “more.” More fame, more power, more money, more likes. Galloping ever faster across this deranged road of excess, it will either collapse from heated frenzy or make your chariot crash. Take a quick look at the tragic lives of many celebrities who did not know when enough was enough and you’ll know what I mean. 

What do real men do? 

They simmer. 

They don’t allow themselves to blow either too hot or too cold. They are temperate… fiercely calm, like the eye of a hurricane. 

So the next time you get rejected or don’t get what you want, tell yourself that you’re getting what you need. It’s the Universe’s way of testing to see if you have what it takes to be a hero. Don’t let anger, or feeling sorry for yourself, or being depressed, keep you from wrestling with a challenge. Don’t allow your horses to run amok. Always control your chariot.

++

Next Life Force: Social Intelligence 

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