One of the venerable classics of Western Civilization, the Mediations of Marcus Aurelius, begins with a series of short discourses on the life lessons he had learned from various people over the years.
It seems like there are a handful of aphorisms that I’ve come to learn either the hard way, or through the careful observation of others. In the Aurelian spirit, then, I offer some of the ones that have crossed my mind of late, in no particular order:
- No matter the circumstances or how difficult it may be to maintain readiness, always be prepared for any eventuality. This point struck me very recently, as I faced the rare prospect of an unannounced drop-by visitor at home. I wasn’t ready; the kitchen was a mess, and my clothing was not appropriate. Of course, I dealt with it, yet — being ready takes work but pays off in the moment.
- Most people are incapable of perceiving their own flaws. A few of my friends and co-workers used to astonish me by their persistent refusal to acknowledge their weaknesses, until I came to understand that they simply didn’t see those weaknesses. To me, the holes were glaring; to them, they were non-existent. Which commends the practice of occasionally asking close friends for a critique, I suppose.
- Power is best wielded with a light touch. No one likes an asshole. No one respects someone who lords power over others. Yet, some can use power effectively while others cannot. Those who are gentle in their approach and effective at communication tend to employ their authority most effectively.
- Dedication trumps innate talent. People who have talent are to be admired, but people whose hard work replicates talent are to be honored. I have much more respect for someone who works hard for an A, than for someone who breezes through classes; the karate student whose clean kata came through hours of practice and not through hereditary grace is the more inspiring; the person who spends hours in the gym building a stronger body is more worthy of admiration than the person who never hits the iron but was blessed by great genes.
- People are motivated as much by a fear of success, as by a fear of failure. I’m a case in point; failure can be psychologically accommodated as the mere result of failing to commit, but if you commit fully and fail anyway, it implies a limit to personal omnipotence. And that can be crushing. The arrogant fail to achieve, because achieving would prompt expectations for future success that, at some point, cannot be attained — and those expectations present barrier that usually cannot be surmounted.
- The assertion of mere preference can be the most effective weapon for killing a relationship. We all have our preferences, but when we use preference as a reason for confronting or doing harm to others, we present a trump card that is very difficult to overcome. Not everyone will satisfy all of our preferences, but when we use preferences as a means of drawing distinctions, there really is no shared basis for discourse — and hence, a relationship breaks down for lack of shared meaning.
- We all have our quirks; hiding them from the world merely increases our own unhappiness. People have different faces that they show the world. The very same person can be seen as a dedicated co-worker, a devoted spouse and father — and a kinky gay-sex fiend who revels in unprotected sex with random men in the park. We don’t show one person all aspects of our personality, and much about ourselves we keep hidden, for sundry reasons. The rationale for this may be quite compelling on a case-by-case basis, but in the aggregate, it tends to reinforce feelings of loneliness.
- It is never legal to do the illegal. Such was the oft-repeated counsel of my drivers-ed teacher. And he had a point: When you pass another car on the road, it’s not legal to exceed the speed limit when you drive by. Put differently: The intention to avoid harm doesn’t mean that we can be willfully ignorant of the possibility that what we do will nevertheless cause harm.
- Unconditional love supplies a hidden premise that can make any irrational argument seem reasonable. I often wondered how my mother could have rationalized a lot of what she had to deal with, when I was young. Then I figured it out: She loved her sons, and such love has a funny way of making the intolerable, tolerable, and the irrational, rational. Call it a hidden premise, if you must, but there’s no denying its power.
- Adults misunderstand the nature of a child’s fragility. Too often, I see parents unintentionally heap emotional abuse on their children, yet work diligently to protect them from the “secular culture” of the world. Adults try to shield children from sex, violence, and death — yet I suspect kids are better at dealing with those topics than adults will admit. What children do need, and too often fail to receive, is validation, and the opportunity to socialize and be curious without fear of rejection or ridicule.
- Sometimes, a life-altering decision can be cleverly disguised as a trivial, spur-of-the-moment choice. I applied for grad school because I was bored one afternoon. A careless letter to the editor led me to write for, and eventually edit, the Western Herald. I joined the WMU student government because I decided not to screen an unknown caller who ended up asking me to attend a student-leadership conference. I presented at a national conference because I took 10 minutes to submit an abstract one snowy February morning. Opportnity doesn’t present itself with fireworks and large signs; often, it is merely one unremarkable choice taken on an unremarkable day.
- For some, a monochrome life of psychological comfort and safety outweighs the more colorful life of struggle, achievement, and risk. We all approach risk differently. Some embrace it; others avoid it; others don’t plan well enough to do anything but react to it. I’ve seen some people allow their aversion to psychological discomfort stop them from achieving their goals, but they also never really had to face bitter disappointment. Comfort is seductive; it prompts us to seek the immediate gratification of stability. Yet risk aversion is not without price; those who reject risk surely don’t experience the lows of failure and shame, but nor do they experience the highs of achievement and glory. Is the price worth it? Each must choose for himself.
- Doers are happier than dreamers. Too many around me, and too often, I myself, find contentment in unrealized aspiration. We daydream about what could be, but we fail to achieve, and we tell ourselves that we could be happy, but for … whatever. Others do, and achieve, and find a greater share of happiness.
I reserve the right to augment this list later. 🙂