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“The Obstacle is the Way”

How we face up to what stands before us seems the essential human question – we see, we think, and, somehow, have to decide what to do. Do we let the world throw us off course, hem us in, or otherwise upset our balance? Should we take “how things are” and “things that happen” as a sign for us to sit back and let things be? What’s another way of responding?

It’s perhaps the question of all philosophy: how to meet life; what it means; the choices and responsibilities we have, individually and collectively; and where it all leads. It’s the sense of humans in the world, surrounded by all that world cooked up before they arrived on the scene, and what we make of the place where we stand – the face life’s turning towards each one of us (Notes One).

With “The Obstacle is the Way”, Ryan Holiday’s offering up an impressive combination of Stoic wisdom alongside examples of people who’ve lived their lives by similar principles. Starting from the words of Aurelius – “The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting… What stands in the way becomes the way” – it develops the idea of transforming life’s challenges into useful steps along our path.

Divided into “objective judgement”, “unselfish action” and “willing acceptance”, the book pulls together many wonderful and intriguing stories of people having applied themselves courageously and creatively to the circumstances they found around them. It’s certainly interesting to think that the whole repertoire of human responses is open for us all to draw strength from.

Between it all emerges a sense of staying calm, seeing clearly, finding opportunities to grow through our difficulties, then committing ourselves to dismantling, going around or simply working with the obstacles in our way. An idea of calculated risks, boldly faced – understanding reality but not letting it hold you back from your aims.

It’s a narrative of relentless persistence, learning from feedback, doing our best, and using everything to our advantage – pressing forward to gain ground and respond well to whatever life throws at us. Then, the strength of not being discouraged even when living through darker times; falling back on the firm determination, resilience and preparation of our own inner fortress.

In many ways, it’s a beautiful picture of life and powerful mindset with which to approach it. Somewhere between the warrior and the statesman, it’s an interesting blend of philosophy, daring and diplomacy: seeing things for what they are; doing what we can; enduring what we must. It’s very practical, encouraging, and good at making you feel less alone in life’s struggle.

It’s not been my way of looking at life – questioning whether we understand rightly and what our actions will mean has been my preoccupation; as what’ll happen if we’re all pursuing our own, possibly mistaken, agendas this way? (Notes Two) – but, that said, the way this book depicts using such a philosophy to move forward in life is definitely worth bearing in mind.

Notes and References:

“The Obstacle is the Way. The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage” by Ryan Holiday, (Profile Books, GB), 2015.

Note 1: The sense of having a worldview
Note 1: Do we know what stands before us?
Note 1: David Bohm, thoughts on life
Note 1: The philosopher stance
Note 2: One thing leads to another
Note 2: Where do ideas of evolution leave us?
Note 2: Ways thought adds spin to life

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