Why, man, he [Julius Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Julius Caesar I.ii.135-141
Can anything be learned from these lines above?
To know, one would need to apply the art of reflection.
Reflection is the process of deep thought, examination, metacognition. It’s thinking about how we think, how we act, why we act, how we perceive. It can help us challenge irrational thoughts, honestly inspect our judgments and actions with a critical eye, and gain insights for future decisions. It is an egocentric act that, ironically, allows for empathizing with others.
Reflecting on the context of the above lines, one might see the lines come from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a play where fate seems to battle free-will. Early in the play, a fortune-teller predicts the leader of Rome, Julius Caesar, will befall misfortune on the “ides of March.” But is it fate that causes Caesar’s ultimate demise? Caesar’s political foe, Cassius, is jealous and power-hungry. He designs a scheme to overthrow Caesar.
In the lines above, Cassius speaks to Caesar’s friend, Brutus. As Palpatine persuaded Anakin Skywalker to join the dark side in Star Wars, here, Cassius persuades Brutus to join him in a murderous scheme against Caesar. Fate wins, right?
Fate certainly drafted the background. No man determines the circumstances to which he is born. Further, fate designs the underlings that exist on earth. But in the play, it’s the free-will of the underlings, not fate, that cause conflict. What unfolds is a story of hubris and political infighting. Characters disregard Fate’s warnings and make rash judgments. Their mistempered acts lead to chaos, bloodshed, murder, and suicide.
Upon more reflection, we might decide Shakespeare was commenting on the political scene of his own time, as Queen Elizabeth I neared the end of her reign and no successor had been determined. Or we can reflect more.
We might see that we, too, are the “underlings.” We, too, are designed by fate but given free-will. We can humble our hubris, temper our passion, and exercise circumspect caution in judgments. That’s quite a lesson from our good ole Billy Shakespeare!
Reflection and Experience – Tools of Learning
Deep reflection helps us access the lessons in classic works of literature, in histories, in wars, and in modern film. It also helps us access the lessons in human experience.
Philosopher and education reformer, John Dewey, believed experience and reflection were the keys to learning. Dewey believed people learned from their experiences in the world, but it wasn’t the experience itself that gave way to learning. It was a person’s reflecting on the action and the result of the action that resulted in learning.
In the same way, reflecting on the past allows us to make connections between our actions, reactions, and desired outcomes.
If in our past we acted one way and the result was negative, we can choose to act differently in the future to get a better result. For example, if we recognize that skipping lunch yesterday led to our having an increased dinner appetite and overeating today, then, tomorrow, we can decide not to skip lunch. Consequently, we will be less likely to overeat.
There is power in the act of reflecting. Reflecting solves problems. It can win wars, it can solve social injustices, and it can help individuals achieve personal goals. Reflection and experience are tools of change. Reflection keeps us from being defeated by our pasts, and it gives us the power to shape our futures.
We may be “underlings,” and we may have faults, but reflection can help us repair them.
Learn the Art
Recently, I made some significant life changes to work towards a healthier lifestyle. One breakthrough from behavior modification therapy was this: goals should be actions, not outcomes. Outcomes result from many correlatives, and thus, are never guaranteed. There’s the fate piece.
Sound like I’m contradicting myself, right? Not really. Fate does play into our path. That said, our actions and reactions are in our control. Particular actions increase the probability of certain desired outcomes. Reflecting periodically on which actions moved us toward a goal and which actions moved us away from a goal exponentially increases the likelihood of our meeting the goal. Reflection is part of the cycle to getting ourselves where we want to be. Try starting your own reflection journal using the reflection cycle below.