Reflections on Aphorisms #96

I hope to get back into the habit of doing more than one aphorism a day. That won’t be today or tomorrow because tomorrow’s Sunday and I probably won’t do two, and today I waited far too long and it’s basically my bedtime.

Aphorism 135

We sometimes differ more widely from ourselves than we do from others. (Maxim 135)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

We grow and change, which is perhaps our one good innate quality.

However, we also waver. I think the Stoics had a good term for this: inconstancy. To be fair, I’m not 100% sure it was the Stoics. I know they didn’t like the character trait, I just don’t remember the term they used.

One of the things about inconstancy is that we can be inconstant in ways that are significant in our lives in ways that others can’t.

Before I begin, though, I want to address the main point here.

I don’t think that there’s a person who is particularly more self-similar than other people. More routine, more dependable from the perspective of the outside world, perhaps. But ultimately we are 90% us, and 10% the moment.

Now, you can make a concerted effort to change yourself. We’ve seen this over and over through humanity’s history.

Of course, doing so does make you differ from yourself, but there’s a philosophical question here:

Does making a conscious change really change you?

I don’t believe so.

Now, that may sound oxymoronic. Changeless alteration.

But the reality is that if you have within yourself the ability to change yourself, the transformation is not really a transformation at all. It is simply an actualization.

If you choose, then the choice is a part of you. Nothing changes and nothing is lost.

So how is it that we can differ more widely than others?

Because our inconstancy often leads us to the same results by different means. If I want to do the right thing, I will do the right thing. If I don’t want to do the right thing, I may be shamed into it. If I have no intention of doing the right thing but am merely unaware of the opportunity, I may do it by habit.

I think the Stoics are too hard on inconstancy. There’s a value to it. It lets us make decisions in context. Of course, moral inconstancy is bad. We want to operate at the highest moral level we can as often and as totally as we can.

But we also want to explore all the choices we can make that do not contradict our morality.

Resolution

Experience new things.

Become what I can be if I set my mind to becoming the best I am.

Spend all time in contemplation of God.

Review of Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.

I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.

Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.

Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.

Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.

I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:

“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”

I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.

I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.

I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.

Becoming a Writer

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), and I just had an epiphany that I figured I’d write about. Obviously a lot of it is inspired by King’s ideas, and I just hit a section about two-fifths of the way into the book where he talks about paragraph structure (of all things).

Context

I’m in the process of going back and getting my Master’s degree, a MFA in creative writing. I don’t think I’m a great writer, at least not in the traditional sense. I write a lot, certainly. My output is good, probably in the top 1%, maybe in the top 10% of the top 1%, if you just look at words published over time that aren’t about myself (though I’m not sure that you can count anything as being written about anyone but the author).

Creative writing kills me.

I’m just not a novelist. I’ve written a ton of shorter stuff, but there’s a reason why the longest thing I can recall writing that was pure creative writing (i.e. not a game) capped out at twenty-thousand words.

It’s because I don’t tell stories well.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. I love telling stories.

But I also love writing in general.

And if I may toot my own horn, I write pretty well. I don’t always hold myself to a high standard on my blogs, but I taught writing and I learned writing and if I have to get down in the dirt and seriously write I can turn out some stuff that you wouldn’t expect.

That doesn’t mean I can write anything.

My most painful writing experience, and one of my greatest triumphs, wasn’t rejection in the traditional sense. It came in an English class in my freshman year of college, ENG 104 (yeah, I’m an honors student, I do the combine two-semesters-in-one and try to over-achieve thing).

I forget what exactly the prompt for the essay was, but the professor had already made clear to me that she thought I had a lot of potential (this is the academic way of saying that you’re giving someone an A but don’t think they should get cocky).

This is not surprising. I probably write up to a million words a year, even if a lot of my output gets thrown out (metaphorically; I keep everything unless I lose it) or winds up little tiny things that don’t go anywhere.

One of the reasons why creative writing slays me is that I don’t do it very often relative to everything else. I like blogging and writing about stuff in general. I suppose in school we’d call it “expository writing” or “descriptive writing”, though in reality those terms mean about as much as a liar’s promise.

The Epiphany

And that’s where my epiphany comes in. I was pacing around reading (gotta get those step goals for the fitness tracker), and I had a sudden realization that the secret to mastering creative writing is the same as the secret to mastering the sort of writing that I feel pretty comfortable with.

You get your butt in seat and you do it.

I realized while reading about paragraph length of all things that there was some truth here.

You see, other than when I fret over an intro paragraph (always the most important point of your work) or a conclusion containing or not containing something, I’ve put any thoughts of proper paragraph length aside for a very long time.

This is technically untrue; as a teacher I’d lecture students on how to write a formula paragraph, but I never had to think about it when I was writing. I just knew whether I’d said what had to be said in a paragraph.

And that’s something that I need to figure out about creative writing. I’m comfortable with my paragraphs, but I’m not comfortable with my stories. Yet.

So that’s what I’m working toward. The only way there is to do, to keep doing, and to do again.

Reflections on Aphorisms #95

Much more productive today, though mostly in the sense that I got a lot of reading and more exercise in. I did get a little bit more writing done, and spent some time on productive extracurriculars as it were, but not a whole lot of finished writing today. I’ve got a few posts written that just need a final layer of polish and a posting, including a review of Bird by Bird and my tablet that I’ve been using to do a lot of my writing recently.

Aphorism 134

The love of justice is simply in the majority of men the fear of suffering injustice. (Maxim 78)

Interpretation

The sincerest convictions are backed up by a willingness to sacrifice the self.

This is one of the greatest forces for progress in the world. Without it, we would not have civilization.

The problem is that our motivations stem not from principle but from desire.

This is something that keeps us from becoming what we could be.

Desire gives us guidance, but it is flawed.

One form of desire is the desire for security.

However, we are not good at evaluating risks and threats. We are wired to be wary of our environments, to see monsters lurking in the dark. Sometimes this is even a pathological element that hides itself within our psyche, a fear of the unknown that cripples us.

This does not need to be restricted to literal darkness, either. Anything that is foreign or alien can produce reactions drawn from fear.

One solution to this is to try to know everything.

This is a flawed path. Our capacities are limited. Our ability to comprehend is limited. Even our use of language to convey information is flawed. The best tool in the repertoire of any living creature malfunctions.

The great problem with trying to overcome fear through acclimation is that there will always be something new to fear. A worse problem is that we assume that knowledge is going to strip away fear. Knowing that the flame burns does not keep it from doing harm. Knowing the proteins that make up an insect do not make it less abhorrent to one with a phobia.

Familiarity breeds contempt, nothing more. We may lose our fear from packaged experiences. We may overcome it through exposure.

Courage is the solution. It requires a willingness to sacrifice. Nihilism is not courage, because the loathing of the self is not the same as the will to improve the world.

Courage is just one of many good and noble guiding principles. Justice is another.

Justice is difficult because even the noblest fall. This is the reason why we recount tragedies. We look at the darkest parts of history and psyche. We tear the veil from our eyes. We remember the dead before we inter their remains. Even if we focus on life, we confront death. 

We know that there is a part of us worthy of condemnation.

But we do not live in a world where things can be broken to pieces and survive.

To destroy the worst in us would be to destroy us, even if it is part of a metamorphosis.

In weakness of will, we seek to punish the offenses rather than eradicate their source.

We may not be able to succeed in the nobler agenda.

But we can always look into ourselves and find that which is rotten and wretched.

If we seek justice, we must start with ourselves. We must cut out that which is profane, that which is corrupt, that which is loathsome. Through these sacrifices we prepare ourselves to live in line with our convictions.

Resolution

Do no evil.

Live by principle.

Distinguish between sacrifice and pain. One has meaning. The other does not.

Reflections on Aphorisms #94

I didn’t have a super-productive day today, but part of that’s just down to sleep (again), going to see Toy Story 4 (which I will probably do an in-depth analysis of), and also just not feeling my best (in large part due to lack of sleep).

I’m not going to beat myself up over it. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Aphorism 132

The head cannot long play the part of the heart. (Maxim 108)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the things that people overlook in this modern age is that we’re built and wired to function a certain way. We try to force ourselves into a particular mode of being.

I’ve recently talked about the issues that surround the idea that one can live a rational life.

One of them is that the value that can be derived from things is not clear by logic.

Let’s take for example the art of taking a vacation.

No matter who you ask, you will get a different response to the proper process.

I like to go in basically unknown. I’ll look at maps and try to see if there’s any particular risk associated with my choice of lodging or route, but I don’t bother with a planned-out itinerary or anything like that. I’ll choose a thing or two I want to do each day, and if I can get them done, that’s great. If not, I’ll do whatever I feel like.

My father is the polar opposite of this, and I can recall countless trips with him that involved enough activity to make the return to daily life a welcome break from the vacation. He has vacations that run on timetables.

Lest I make him sound too unbearable, he’s grown a lot more conscious of others’ needs in the past few years, so this is more of a childhood reflection than something that is a current issue I’m just griping about on the internet.

Part of the reason that I don’t plan my trips other than just picking potential destinations and not even being particularly faithful to them is that it makes it a lot easier to follow my emotion, rather than my reason. I’ve had great experiences in lowly places.

The philosopher/investor Nicholas Nassim Taleb once wrote that he went out to an expensive and fancy dinner that he hated, then went and got cheap pizza, and he could never figure out why the pizza didn’t cost as much as the expensive dinner.

I’m the same way. I’m just as happy with a couple dollars worth of pizza as I am with the best experiences, and part of the reason for this is that I don’t let reason get in the way of planning my life.

Sure, there might be restaurants in San Francisco that I’ve never gone to that would have been within my reach, but Jenny’s Burgers by Golden Gate Park offer a nice half-pound burger that doesn’t break the bank and leaves me happily sedated with satiation.

Part of the problem with reason replacing emotion is that reason looks outside the self. My first epiphany of this was when I decided to become a teacher instead of a pharmacist. Both professions are worthy of respect, but one of them didn’t hold the same value to me. I knew that no matter how much I helped people as a pharmacist, I wouldn’t have a personal connection with the vast majority of them, and I wouldn’t get to see them grow.

Of course, I’m also unlikely to be getting a sports car any time soon, but I’m satisfied with my old early-2000s Honda Civic (even if the airbags are in a perpetual state of product recall). It’s a coupe, which is sexy in its own way even if it’s not a fancy car, and it drives really well.

Putting reason into things can reveal all the issues with them that we put up with.

However, our reason is not solid, and we very quickly wind up compounding its errors. Our emotion is just as flawed, but we’re intuitively aware of this. They work together, not separately. With both emotion and reason, we can balance our observations, thoughts, and responses. With just one or the other, they quickly wind up astray.

I read one of Jonathan Haidt’s books in which he mentioned that people who have damage to the part of the brain that produces emotion have a hard time making decisions and wind up making really bad decisions.

Even if logical thought remains intact, the driving force that orients us to our goals is always going to be emotion. A vacation that turns into a forced march doesn’t feel like a vacation (in fact, it’s turned into a common trope of stories centered on youth in America), and a life that turns into calculated mathematics doesn’t feel like life.

Resolution

Balance my emotions with my reason.

Remember why I do things.

When planning, think about what the result will feel like.

Reflections on Aphorisms #93

Got a lot more writing done today than I did yesterday. Didn’t keep track, but I think it was in the area of about 4000 words.

Also finished listening to Bird by Bird, which I plan to write a review of later on in the week.

I’ve had the burst of inspiration I need to finish up most of the current freelancing I’m doing. Now the only thing that remains is to turn that inspiration into good writing.

Aphorism 131

Our temper sets a price upon every gift that we receive from fortune. 

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

There’s an old cliche about not looking gift horses in the mouth.

Our brains are wired to function in a primal mode most of the time, even if we aren’t conscious of it. We’re not thinking rationally because reason is something that has to be learned and consciously practiced, and even then we’re emulating it rather than really owning it as a function of our being.

So when we see something good, our first reaction is to look for the trap. Maybe our newfound bounty will attract larger, more dangerous scavengers.

A manifestation of this is that we’re often more critical of the good things in our life than we are of the bad ones.

Think of how many ways a loved one can annoy or irritate you. If you’re a writer, like I am (kinda), you will have realized (or will soon realize) that they can be very distracting, especially if they take advantage of your “free time” when you need to be exercising the discipline of writing.

This is only exacerbated by the modern era.

If only we lived without the joys of modern telecommunication. We’d just have to deal with constant uncertainty and lose access to the ability to get in touch with all our business associates, friends, and distant relatives at any moment!

A small price to pay, is it not?

However, it is much better to have both loved ones and technology in our lives. There are costs associated with them, either in the form of the dollar or the investment of time, effort, and emotion that accompanies relationships. We call this sacrifice, in case anyone was curious.

If you don’t have loved ones and you don’t have technology, you probably feel it. I don’t think I’d be able to write a thousand words per hour (I have written 400 words in eight minutes just now) without an electronic device of some sort. I could maybe pull it off with a typewriter, if I were really disciplined and had time to practice. My handwriting is so abysmal due to my pitiable manual dexterity that I doubt I would ever reach anything close, and I’d struggle to stay legible, in manual writing.

Perhaps I could have made do with dictation, but that’s only become trivially inexpensive in the modern day with the advent of computers that do it, and even then you wind up with all sorts of issues.

But technology is also our greatest distraction in the modern age. It’s full of wonders, delights, terrors, trivia.

It gives us a way to spend our whole lives doing nothing at all, like reading the blogs of master’s degree students or taking a voyeur-like interest in videos of cats, and those are at least redeemable uses of the internet. Cats are good for the soul, and mine has been deceased for some months. I live vicariously until my lifestyle and fear of loss return to a state which will allow me to welcome a new companion into my life.

We are often better at finding the benefits in our suffering than in our strength. My cat passed away right before I was due to leave town for a week and a half; she was killed by a stroke and if it had happened when nobody was around to check on her she would probably have died of thirst and hunger. The designated catsitter would have been informed of her reclusive tendencies and thought nothing of the disappearance until it was too late. Although her passing was difficult to deal with, there was a small glimmer of relief in the sense that we were able to be there with her as she suffered and were able to have her put down before she suffered terribly.

On the other hand, if you asked me what the benefits of my teaching job were before I left to go back to school full-time, I would have hemmed and hawed and had a really hard time giving you a concrete answer that really spoke to the truth. It’s not that I don’t miss teaching (I cried for hours on my last day), but rather that it’s easy to overlook how nice things were when you were busy actually dealing with them, how much watching students grow brings meaning and satisfaction to your life.

Resolution

Appreciate the strengths of the good things; they may not be so obvious as they are made out to be.

Accept pain when it offers opportunity and improvement.

Remember that most things I have, even the things that are “intrinsic” to me, can be taken for granted and lost. Do not let that cause anxiety. Instead let it encourage me to use what I have when I have it.

Reflections on Aphorisms #92

Today was a less productive day than I had hoped, but at least I got more physical activity (though not tremendously much so) and was able to get a little more writing done than I was able to do yesterday. Listened to a lot of audiobook stuff too, so that’s at least a sign that I didn’t just waste my time (though there was more of that than I’d care to admit to).

Aphorism 130

Few people know death, we only endure it, usually from determination, and even from stupidity and custom; and most men only die because they know not how to prevent dying.

François de La Rochefoucauld 

Interpretation

I can say without deceit that I have entered the happiest time of my life so far, yet I think that if I were to be faced with my mortality I would be more willing to let go of life now than I have ever been.

I think that there is something about being miserable that makes everything else less bearable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about archetypal stories recently, and one thing struck me as funny.

This might be controversial, but I’ve decided to be radically honest and I’m not going to apologize for saying it.

There are a lot of stories where the characters can be either men or women without causing a change, and a lot of stories where the characters are locked into their gender. In the latter case, if you change the characters’ roles around they feel different.

And I think I’ve finally figured out what the reason for this is.

In the stories where characters can change without issue, it’s generally the story of the Hero, a completely actualized self. Look at Star Wars. A New Hope and The Force Awakens are basically the same storyline, and there is relatively little difference between Luke and Rey represent complete people, and despite the strong parallels (and differences, but generally parallels) between the two they are almost entirely undefined by their gender.

I’d compare this to the characters in Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello goes through a breakdown of his psyche, and he becomes disintegrated. He becomes the pure essence of this wayward masculine element, and ultimately destroys his wife, his feminine counterpart, and thereby completes his tragic fall.

I think of the classic story of Sleeping Beauty, who is a very feminine figure in the archetypal sense. I think you could tell the story with a male character in the protagonist’s spot, but you’d wind up with some real difficulties as you go onward because it’s not the archetypal role of the masculine to do the things that Sleeping Beauty does. You couldn’t replace Maleficent with a man, either, because she represents the destructive feminine, the force that destroys that which intrudes into the unknown without being prepared, whereas the destructive masculine force is that of the tyrant and the destroyer within society who rejects change and the unknown.

But I’ve gone on a tangent. Let us return to Rochefoucauld.

Montaigne (he’s French too, so he counts as Rochefoucauld, right?) draws a contrast between the philosophers and the peasants. Philosophers spend countless hours trying to figure out how to live and how to die. Peasants have their lots assigned to them by birth. The philosophers struggle, toil, and despair. Peasants live with quiet dignity.

Of course, I think Montaigne oversimplifies and romanticizes matters.

But when Rochefoucauld says that most men die only because they don’t know how not to, I think it ties into this notion that most of us live deeply unfulfilling lives. At least when your life is set out ahead of you by an external force, you have the ability to follow a path set by someone other than yourself.

Death used to terrify me. I wouldn’t go outside because I was afraid of what I may find. I’ve got this lovely neurotic personality that hates going outside for a whole sort of reasons, I have terrible seasonal allergies (which flare up during both of the seasons that we get in Arizona), and I’m always capable of conjuring up the worst nightmare hell scenario that could possibly happen. I was never particularly prone to separation anxiety in the sense of being a whiny infant (by all accounts, my brother and I were pleasant children to be around), but I would worry and obsess over every possible woe that could befall my family members when they weren’t in my watchful care.

I still do, from time to time, especially when I’m putting things off and not using my time well.

But one of the things that has come to me as I’ve grown and particularly as I’ve dedicated myself to the study of philosophy and the mind is that it’s best to let go of most things.

If I step outside tomorrow and get hit by a falling airplane (or get hit by a falling airplane while asleep tonight), what flaw does it reflect in myself?

Nothing.

I’d much rather worry about taking one step forward than obsess over the past and the worst that could happen. When death comes for me, which I’m not planning on any time soon (by the grace of God), I don’t plan to grovel before it. Instead I’ll focus on what I’ve done, and what I can do with the time I have left.

Resolution

Don’t sweat the small stuff. (Hey, I’m even willing to punctuate emotionally raw reflections with cliches, and I’m not trying to be flippantly dismissive. Judge me as you wish!)

Become the full human, whatever that takes.

There is a lot to regret, but no reason to spend time doing so.

Reflections on Aphorisms #91

Today was a moderately successful day. I didn’t get as much physical activity or writing done, but now that I have classes (which I’m very much currently ahead on) I can justify that a little.

I also have been getting better at trying to spitball some of the writing I’ve been doing instead of waiting to perfect it in my head. I’ve been listening to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and trying to follow some of the advice there.

Aphorism 129

The passions possess a certain injustice and self interest which makes it dangerous to follow them, and in reality we should distrust them even when they appear most trustworthy.

François de La Rochefoucauld 

Interpretation

One of the things about emotion is that it tends to lead us toward things that further emotion.

If we want to feel good, we tend to lead ourselves in paths that gratify us, and we slowly develop an attachment to our own pleasure.

I forget who once said that we tend to continue doing whichever behaviors we reward in ourselves, though I’m sure that it’s a common sentiment enough that it’s been echoed and repeated to the point that you could lose yourself in a rabbit hole. Maybe Jung, or even Nietzsche? It follows some of the biological nature of the brain as a system that tends to follow both chemical processes and associations between neurons, and I’ve definitely heard it described in that language by someone who has been in the 21st century (Jordan Peterson?), though I feel like its origins may even be classical.

To a certain extent, one could also extend the idea to Rochefoucauld.

Passions are generally bad not because we should stifle our emotions and get rid of them, but because passions represent the emotion as the sole driver of our decision-making process. We need emotions so that we can prioritize things. Of course, emotion serves as a simplifying heuristic; “liking” or “disliking” something based on experience or prediction is much simpler than making a rational decision every time it comes up, but can often lead to equally good results. Going further, however, emotions are part of what makes the human experience worth living through.

Yes, emotions often include suffering, and passions are dangerous, but they’re also responsible for everything we perceive as good. Happiness in itself has no place on the scale of vice and virtue, but the purpose of virtue is to foster as much happiness as possible on a grand cosmic scale (even if it means sacrifice and struggle in the short-term) made possible through an understanding of truth and meaning.

Passions are often the result of seeking happiness above seeking virtue. It’s the desire to have the meal without the work, metaphorically speaking. There’s a children’s story in the vein of Aesop in which I believe a chicken (I should remember; animal symbols often carry archetypal significance) works to sow seeds of corn but the other animals do not help, despite being asked to help. Of course, when the harvest comes, everyone asks the chicken if they can share in the food, but the chicken keeps the grain for itself.

Without delving into the morals of the story, acting on passion is similar to desiring that which is unearned. Although passion is not necessarily innately wrong, since there are justifiable reasons for the actions that can be ascribed to passion flowing out of a desire for justice and righteousness, the fact remains that the passionate are prone to be deceived and preyed upon by those who can manipulate their emotions.

Worse, passions tend to undo the clarity of mind that would be needed to safely act upon them. Even if a wise person can rely on their feelings above the knowledge they have acquired and the counsel of peers and sages in a single instance, in repetition they wind up preparing themselves to act on passion when they believe they are simply considering the input of their emotion.

Resolution

Make emotion one counselor among many.

Avoid entitlement.

Don’t do something in an emergency that I would not do in principle.

Reflections on Aphorisms #90


Classes officially start for me tomorrow. I’ve already had a chance to log on and preview them, but since it’s a Sunday I haven’t gone into depth on anything. I’m hoping to get disciplined about being done with classes well before the actual due dates, so that I can devote some time at the end of each week to really reflect on and use what I’ve learned.

Aphorism 128

We have more strength than will; and it is often merely for an excuse we say things are impossible. (Maxim 30)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the things that always strikes me as odd is that people talk about how “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” in the vein of Paul, but most people actually have the opposite going on in their lives.

We do not push ourselves to our fullest and expound upon our potential. This would be difficult and unwieldy, and we are unwilling to confront the suffering that it would bring upon us. Suffering, however, is not the greatest evil.

There are very few people who actualize their potential. We possess much more strength and power than we give ourselves credit for, and even “successful” people do not bring their best selves into being. This is the cause of much of the conflict in life.

I consider myself successful, in the sense that I do not believe myself to be a moral failure, and where I have deficiencies I am remedying them. I have chosen the sacrifices that I wish to make in order to become a person who is good and God-fearing. Even then I have not lived up to the standards that I have set for myself, both morally and practically.

By what means, then, can we seek to meet our own standards?

According to Rochefoucauld, who seems in this case to be quite correct, we need to realize that a lot of the time it is not our bodies or our minds that betray us but our will.

In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections (which I have written a review of), Carl Jung talks about the case of a mother who infected her children with contaminated bathwater. She had known that the water was not pure and safe to drink, but had permitted them to do so, seemingly out of negligence. Jung discovered that she had developed a complex; she was quite happy with one of her children (her daughter, if my memory serves), but not the other (her son). The reasoning for this wasn’t a matter of mere approval or disapproval; there were correlations and associations that led to her antipathy.

The daughter died, the son survived, and she slipped into such a shattered mental state as to be institutionalized.

She would never deliberately murder her children. However, she wound up in a ward for the insane, deemed incompetent or mentally defective. There was no limit in her capacity, however. She was perfectly intelligent, and in fine physical health. It was only the fact that she had begun to loathe her role as mother and the burdens that her marriage and society had placed on her that caused her to abandon her duties.

Most of us occupy this state. There is no shortcoming in us which justifies our failings. We are actually often surpassed by those who have much better reasons to fail than we do. I recently read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken (my review), and in an interview at the end of the book she mentioned how she had chronic fatigue disorder and vertigo flare-ups during the writing process.

She’s written two award winning books (both of which have been turned into movies) with chronic health conditions that make even getting out of bed a burden. I’ve never read Seabiscuit, though I can vouch for the quality of Unbroken, and I think that her aptitude is a good model of how far the will can carry someone.

Most of us don’t have that will; I know that I certainly don’t yet. Fortunately, I don’t believe we’re static beings. We change and grow. At the very least we have seen that people are capable of disintegrating. However, every day and every hour we have experiences that change us, even in our dreams. If we capitalize on our experiences and avoid those things which bring us to moments of weakness and psychological disintegration, we can move away from weakness and toward strength.

Resolution

Find and do things which serve a greater purpose.

Don’t pretend that weakness is an obstacle.

Every time I want to stop, ask why.

Reflections on Aphorisms #89

Today was not quite as productive a day, but the great thing is that at least I was productive enough recently to actually pull it off without falling behind, though I would’ve loved to have gotten a little more done.

Aphorism 127

Although men flatter themselves with their great actions, they are not so often the result of a great design as of chance. (Maxim 57)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the great things that I’ve realized about working as I grew older is that you don’t work for a reward, you work for the opportunity or expectation of a reward.

This may sound a little weird, but it’s actually a very familiar trend in the modern world. As a writer, I see this very often in a day-to-day sense where I write for the public and rely on their response and write as a freelancer for clients and hope that my work lives up to their expectations.

As a more traditional employee, however, you still do your work for extrinsic rewards. There are very few things that we do in the modern world for the sake of getting them done. This is why a lot of hobbies are satisfying and popular; fixing a car or growing a garden doesn’t necessarily lead to financial success, but it’s a great way to accomplish something.

I think that this is part of the reason why people  become so dissatisfied with the modern world. I remember realizing at some point during my college career that I would never be rewarded (financially, at least) for the work that I did. I would be rewarded for joining a team and meeting certain requirements, but the actual work was not going to be the source of my reward.

This is responsible for a certain amount of what I believe to be best described as bureaucratic apathy. Because the reward for the work doesn’t follow from the work itself, there’s a disintegration of motivation and ideals.

Of course, when you work directly for an audience or client you have a much better chance of having a link between work quality and recompense. I’ve written a lot over the years, and I like to think that I get a little better at it daily, or at least weekly.

This is where we wind up back at Rochefoucauld. I honestly believe that some of my writing is at a professional level, but I’m not yet there as a writer. This would be frustrating when taken from certain perspectives, but I’ve learned that the quality of work does not necessarily correlate with the reception that it receives.

I think that there’s a reason why humans have a tendency to gamble, and it’s tied to the concept that there’s a disconnect between actions and success. Sometimes success comes long down the road, instead of immediately, and it needs some time to be recognized.

Where gambling becomes dangerous is that this can be willfully triggered by those who exploit our perceptions of chances of success and use it to give us the perception of potential future gain where none exists.

The horrible thing is that getting rid of this would also require to some degree getting rid of our hopes and dreams, because we would lose our ability to go for the future that we desire based on the work of the present.

Reason is useful, but it only deals with the known and experienced. To prepare for the future by moving into the unknown and mastering it is a matter of the spirit.

Resolution

Take every chance to do great things.

Don’t let failure stop effort.

Never do things for the sake of merely pulling a paycheck.