It is a beloved Jewish teaching that when it comes to spiritual service and growth, one can learn lessons from every person. For example, the 18th century mystic Reb Zusha said that from a child, one can learn to never sit still and to keep striving for what he wants. From a thief, one can learn to keep trying to attain the “treasure” (that is, spiritual growth)—if a thief fails one night, he will try the next night, and so on.
The same holds true for the path of one’s psycho-emotional growth. When it comes to recovery, whether it is recovery from a mental illness or an addiction, one can learn a lot from all kinds of people. Even from a rather violent (though compelling), figure currently in the public’s eye, the ancient gladiator, Spartacus.
The character of a warrior (or gladiator), in general, and the freedom-fighting gladiator Spartacus in particular, offers many points of instruction for those struggling with emotional health.
In our friend Barry Strauss’s beautifully written history, The Spartacus War, the very real man Spartacus (as opposed to the dramatic character beloved by filmmakers and audiences), comes vividly to life. Though portrayed in popular entertainment as well as some historical sources as a “man of passion, thirsting for freedom and burning for revenge,” Strauss says that Spartacus’s actions actually “tell a different story”:
He was no hothead, but rather a man of controlled emotions.
Be a man/woman of controlled emotions: Spartacus had once been in the service of Rome before he led the slave revolt against her. But though a revolutionary, he was a man of controlled emotions. Your revolution must be your struggle against a painful status quo. It works best when anger, fear, hate and other strong, negative emotions aren’t surrendered to—they will distract you from your course. Instead, negative emotions can be rechanneled and used to help you stay productively motivated.
Like Cicero, he was an orator.
Be an orator: Spartacus was able to motivate his revolutionaries and win over many to his cause by articulating his ideas and inspiring others. Thoughtful self-talk as well as talking to your therapist and significant others in clear, concrete terms can help them understand what you are going through as well as forge healthier alliances. (Don’t forget to listen to them, too!)
Like Cato, he was a man of simple tastes.
Be a man/woman of simple tastes: It’s easy when you are in pain to wallow in what isn’t working in your life. But each of us is able to consciously turn our attention to what is beautiful in our lives and appreciate the simple things. Though Western culture (and advertising agencies) would have you believe it’s imperative to demand the “best,” it’s actually a mistake to only cultivate a taste for the best—it breeds dissatisfaction when the best isn’t available. Drive-through coffee is hot and does the trick, you can have moments of hope even if you aren’t deliriously happy, the sun coming in through the window is the same sun that shines in Capri, the synthetic comforter will keep you just about as warm as eiderdown, your job pays the bills though you aren’t CEO, your friends are kind and generous though they don’t have much to give, and so on.
…he believed in sharing the wealth among his men.
Share the “wealth”: View each simple, good thing, each success as wealth—and share it! Share your wealth with your journal, share it with your friends, share it with your therapist, share it with your spouse, share it with your mom, share it with your colleagues. Each time you think, talk, or write about your wealth, you make an investment. When you invest your wealth, it brings returns—some of which may be surprising. When you share the occasional positive word with others (and listen to them in return), you create your own “culture of comfort.”
…he fought for freedom.
Fight for freedom: Each day brings new opportunity for freedom. Maybe today you can be free from anxiety for only half an hour, but tomorrow you might be free for an hour. Maybe today you can be free from a craving for alcohol or drugs for only a few minutes, but tomorrow it might be twenty minutes. If you focus on the freedom, with hard work and solid support, you may win the war.
Through the lens of history it is easy to find lessons in another’s life. The trick is stepping back and learning the lessons in the history of our own.
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Last reviewed: 23 Feb 2010