It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something is greatly wrong with our culture…not that rocket scientists are solely privy to such insights; maybe I should have said anthropologist, but you get the idiom.
I’ve figured out how to destroy blog readability in my opening paragraph.
Anyway, to my point, something is wrong with our culture, and I’d hate to be the one that says it – I can literally feel the eyes roll – but it’s moral.
We have substituted character for image; intellect for emotion; and relativism for accountability.
We say “All truth is relative. I know this is true because it’s what I feel. And you may not like it but it’s who I am.”
Yet, we never factored into our calculations just how far this could go! That’s the problem with the abandonment of basic moral principles, we don’t know where it will take us nor how quickly it will bring us there. It literally turns things upside down.
In this article, we will explore how our cultural understanding of weak-willed is actually the ancient virtues of wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice.
A Quick Quip On The Ancient Four Cardinal Virtues
Seneca The Younger, Roman Stoic/Playwright and one of the many brilliant brains that Nero thought prudent to behead – well, he actually forced him to commit suicide, but whatever brain and behead had better symmetry. The history I’d sacrifice for syntactical satisfaction!
All seriousness aside, the point is that he once summed up these four virtues so immaculately that to start anywhere else would be intellectual suicide (or at least it would greatly hurt my heart). He noted,
Plato, the Vito Corleone of philosophy who luckily preceded Nero’s crazy-ass by a few hundred years, asserted that these virtues executed appropriately created a sort of psychic harmony, wherein the human spirit could optimize and flourish. (I discuss this concept – or at least my own understanding of it – in Letting Go Of Resentment: Plato’s Tripartite Soul)
In his most famous and arguably his greatest work, The Republic, he details the four virtues – wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage – in regards to the optimization of the state (politics, government, weird Greek elitism mumbo jumbo, yatta yatta yatta).
However, all of this talk of the state was purely an effort to glean a deeper understanding of individual morality. The state, by way of analogy, pointed to the holistic and multi-tier motivational nature of the individual and how she should operate via specific principles and roles.
In any event, the pretext precipitated his belief that regards to the individual the four cardinal virtues were a necessary component to human flourishing. Something it would seem our current culture has distanced itself from – yet, I’d argue Plato’s culture wasn’t much different.
The Cultural Problem
I recently read a fantastic article titled “10 Signs You’re A Mentally Strong Person (Even Though Most People Think These Are Weaknesses).” In it, the author (Amy Morin) challenges the status quo and asserts that what is often considered weakness in our culture is really the epitome of strength. It made me reflect on the four cardinal virtues and how the writer is arguing what has been said ad nauseam for the last 2 millennium and some.
This article is borne out of the desire to bridge the gap – a contemporary look at an ancient argument. Let’s begin with the ten signs and I’ll give them my spin with the four virtues peppered throughout.
- Being Kind
- Changing Your Mind
- Acknowledging Your Weaknesses
- Asking For Help
- Be Patient
- Expressing Emotion
- Walking Away
- Improving Yourself
- Staying Calm
The 7 Signs
Which Is Just A Rendition Of The 10 (I Can Complicate A Free Lunch)
1.) Being Kind
The so-called wisdom of the world scoffs at kindness. Better off callusing your heart than it being trampled on. Moreover, in this society to be a pushover is tantamount to economic and social suicide. Only a weak-willed individual would present with such deficiencies.
However, is this justice?
Marcus Aurelius long ago wrote, “And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.”
Being kind is far from being a pushover. Granted, kindness without boundaries is merely disguised self-interest – which could certainly be donned with the royal pushover robes but this, of course, is far from just.
Moreover, an inability to bypass the incessant need for validation and approval (which presumably occurs with a kindness unrestricted) demonstrates low self-discipline.
Nonetheless, extending a neighbor a helping hand, lending another the benefit of the doubt, seeking to understand rather than simply be understood, and demonstrating compassion and acting with the other in mind – the common good – is not a sign of weakness but of immense courage.
Engaging in social risks takes a strong character, particularly with the acute fear of rejection and conflict so associated with our culture.
2.) Changing Your Mind
Seneca once noted that “A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”
And the process of being perfected (and it’s always in process) entails claims to ignorance, not certainty! As Socrates brilliantly said, “The wise man knows he knows nothing at all.”
Changing directions in one’s belief system doesn’t mean one lacks conviction, or is a wishy-washy indecisive, easily influenced fool. Instead, it means that as they gather the data and interpret the evidence, the conclusion is a shift in what they believe. This is called growth, progress, or as most refer to it as – wisdom.
3.) Acknowledging Your Weaknesses
“Imperfection is the necessary byproduct of nature’s work.”
Even Achilles had his heel. We are all vulnerable and have gaping blind spots. To deny this is to literally deny your humanity. Moreover, such denial would only imply the sheer size of the denier’s blind spot. Claim imperfection? Really? Hi Thanos, it’s the universe calling, they’d like their stones back.
The silliness of perfection notwithstanding, consider the Roman Phalanx. Each soldier has specific blindspots and weakness which are compensated for by the soldier standing next to him. Each matching one another’s weaknesses with each other’s strengths. Together we are as close to perfection as it comes.
Additionally, when I think of exceptionally talented artists or athletes, I don’t think perfection – though the sentiment is appealing – I think that their particular imperfection is what makes them really stand out.
For example, Slash is one of my favorite guitar players but he can be a sloppy guitarist. Nonetheless, that’s what creates the Slash sound! It’s not his perfection I admire, it’s his imperfection that makes him who he is – an incredibly unique and masterful musician.
In actuality, not one of the four virtues would exist if perfection did. Conceptually virtue relies on its counterpart, namely the possibility to act without virtue. This could be argued philosophically, but it would certainly be difficult to imagine. Could you envision light without darkness, up without down, or left without right?
Not to stress this point exhaustively, but let’s take a gander at some of the lauded biblical characters. Peter Scazzero commented in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality on the radically imperfect nature of these spiritual giants. He writes,
“The Bible does not spin the glass and weaknesses of it’s heroes. Moses was a murderer. Hosea’s wife was a prostitute. Peter rebuked God! Noah got drunk. Jonah was a racist. Jacob was a list. John Mark deserted Paul. Elijah burned out. Jeremiah was depressed and suicidal. Thomas doubted. Moses had a temper. Timothy had ulcers. And all these people send the same message: that every human being on Earth, regardless of their gifts and strengths, is weak, vulnerable, and dependent upon God and others.”
The world may see acknowledging your weakness as emotionally pathetic and socially puny. But as we’ve seen, it’s the exact opposite!
Want to flourish? Boast in your weakness.
4.) Failing & Asking For Help
How did King Solomon become wise? By realizing he was lacking it. Apparently, he believed his lack was so pronounced that when God asked him what his heart desired, he answered “wisdom.”
How did Socrates, and Descartes for that matter, become so knowledgeable? By doubting they had any knowledge whatsoever and by making a trillion inquiries in an attempt to locate it.
How did Edison invent the lightbulb? Tesla aside, he did it by failing 10 thousand times!
I cannot find the source but I recall reading a quote attributed to Gandhi which noted that “Success is merely a succession of glorious failures.”
How true is this?
Far too frequently we hold unreasonable expectations on how the world works, particularly in terms of success.
I cannot help but point out the irony – that imperfect human beings seem to expect themselves to be perfect.
Perhaps intellectually we find this silly, but our underlying belief system and present stressors seem to imply that the will to be perfect is our anthem.
However, as noted above, we can not nor will we ever be perfect. Failing is how one learns, grows, and prospers.
If you see a successful person – a person like King Solomon, Socrates, Descartes, or Edison – you merely witness an individual who can fail gracefully, or at least without letting it break them. This takes great courage – specifically with our cultural call to present a stunning unrefracted image to our peers.
The same holds true for asking for help – which is why I’ve placed these two together.
Asking for help is often viewed as synonymous with failure or weakness.
I know I certainly viewed it this way.
For instance, in the past, if If I didn’t know the answer to a specific question I believed I should have known, I felt stupid needing to ask. However, if I looked it up on Google and answered it that way, I felt fine – and smart!
See, it had little to do with the asking and everything to do with my social image. My little personal contemporary perfectionist mythology.
I wasn’t saying I felt stupid, for not knowing. What I was really thinking was that “you” would think I was stupid.
That’s a huge difference!
This has nothing to do with smarts and everything to do with shame. Shame is just an unreasonable and unrealistic expectation of one’s social image.
It’s time we tweak that image!
Wisdom lets us know we are not perfect.
Justice lets us know this applies to everyone.
Self-discipline is the application of this truth.
Courage is the willingness to do it.
5.) Be Patient
I always tell my daughter that patience is waiting without complaining. It’s a mantra of sorts we chant. Well, I chant – she begrudgingly participates.
For example, when she becomes over eager and anxious – usually regarding craving for some object, a toy perhaps – I ask the simple albeit powerful question, “sweetie, what’s patience?”
And with the roll of the eyes, sigh, an elaborate grunt and usually a brief pause with fierce eye contact – she reluctantly replies, “waiting…without…complaining.”
It effectively does nothing at the moment other than tick her off. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t seem to embody the four cardinal virtues.
But it curbs desire a bit – which is my intention with a five-year-old. It targets the illusion of the quick fix and hits its mark.
But where it fails is equally devastating, at least for an adult.
It releases the Kraken of obsession before Perseus (a typified wisdom in this narrative) has courageously usurped the paralyzing fear of Medusa by taking her head. (Clash of The Titans, anyone?)
Ok, maybe it’s not that devastating but It’s a mentality that cannot seem to shake the short-term gain for a greater long term benefit. Actually, it’s willing to cash out with the short term profit at the expense of serious long-term loss.
I call this “Gollum’s Road”. For the individual who embarks it cannot appear to separate themselves from the object of their desire. Its self-absorption blasted to the infinite.
“It came to me. My own. My love. My own. My precious.”
This is the contemporary plight of modern man; the inability to stifle and properly distribute desire. The only way to exit Gollum’s Road is to take Epictetus’s Fork, which is as follows,
“Remember that desire promises the chance of reaching what you desire, and that aversion promises to not fall into that which you averse; that he who fails to reach the object of his desire is unfortunate, and that he who falls into the object of his aversion, is unhappy.”
“If, then, you only have aversion towards the things that are unnatural and in your control, you will never fall into the object of your aversion. But if you have aversion towards sickness, death or poverty, you will be unhappy. Therefore, take away your aversion to all the things that are not in our control and transfer it to the things that are unnatural and in our control.”
“Let go of all desire for the moment: for if you desire what is not in our control, you will surely be unfortunate, and of the things that are within our control, how great they may be, nothing is yet in your possession. Only exercise pursuit and avoidance slightly, with exception and reservedly.”
6.) Expressing Emotion & Walking Away
Celebrated Alcoholics Anonymous circuit speaker, Sandy B, noted that our natural assets, our emotional drives, are similar to a steam locomotive.
Let me explain…
The train is fueled by burning combustible material – usually coal, wood, or oil – which produces steam in a boiler. The steam is then funneled into a tank and leveraged for a dual purpose: power and speed.
In a word, the steam animates it; endowing the train with life.
However, there is a caveat: the steam pressure gauge needs constant attention…
Well, the steam, that is the very thing that gives the train life will also be the very thing that destroys it if it’s left unregulated.
Our passions, our emotional drives, are just like that – they demand constant attention, diligence, and regulation to operate optimally. And, as with the locomotive, you’re regulation may need a crew. (This was pulled directly from my article How To Increase Your Self-Control: Directed Passion).
The worldly culture may find discussing your feelings the tendencies of a fragile and delicate female. But regardless of sex, it’s the habits of a courageous, self-disciplined, and wise individual.
The Buddha takes this a bit further, “Any material form, or thought, or feeling, past or present, should be regarded as, ‘This is not mine, this is not what I am, this is not my self.’
In his mind thoughts and emotions create no virtue whatsoever! How can something that it’s completely separate and detached from all labels and concepts hold any significance at all? As Shakespeare once commented, “There is neither good nor bad, but your thoughts make it so.” Yet, this does seem difficult to actualize. I think more accurately we do not want to be possessed or subdued by our emotions.
Mooji captures Buddha’s thoughts more pragmatically, “Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go.” Yes, they are just visiting but we are called to be a good host. And a good host knows all too well about limitations.
Though giving up is often construed as a sign of weak will, it’s often a sign of wisdom.
Roy Rogers said it best,
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run.”
It takes great courage to step away from something you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into – particularly relationships, business projects, and the like.
Knowing when something has run its course and is no longer profitable is fantastic insight. Understanding your personal restrictions and limitations and learning to step away from an investment, even if incurring a serious loss, is the pinnacle of discernment. Furthermore, it may be one of the hardest thing to carry out – far from being a weakness, this is the poster child of strength. Additionally, it can save a bottoming out in the future.
7.) Improving Yourself & Staying Calm
In my mind’s eye, these two go fist in glove. Hand in glove? Whatever. The two complement each other.
I wouldn’t say our current culture has an aversion towards self-improvement. Instead, the refinement usually has more to do with social standing, prestige, image, status, etc then it does with something of actual substance. Of course, this is a generalization but it’s one that’s hard to deny.
Usually, when we ponder self-improvement we think toned pectorals not necessarily a self-disciplined mind. We think a bronzed skin color not mastery over the nervous system.
Our priorities may be slightly askew.
Staying calm is a skill developed by constant mindfulness practices and consummate breathing skills. Is a warm embrace and bond with the highest form of knowledge, which per The Daily Stoic, could be broken down into 3 main points:
- All emotions come from within
- Find someone you respect and use them to stay honest.
- Recognize there is life after failure
Regarding the first point, comments Marcus Aurelius, “Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
Easier said than done, but next time you’re disturbed realize that the disturbance is a result of your interpretation.
For example, if you are disturbed because someone is punching you in the mouth, that’s a rational interpretation. However, if you are sitting on your couch watching Full House reruns with a heightened state of anxiety due to some imagined scenario, you are presenting with an irrational interpretation.
Point two encapsulates the primacy of our social nature. Seneca writes, “Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. This is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”
As touched upon earlier, once our imperfections are realized another thought is hot on its tail. The realization that together we are damn near close to perfect! Well, when operating cohesively as a unit. This is not a shout out to communism, sorry Karl. It’s just an appeal to the cooperative nature of man.
Anyway, to illustrate. I recall going to my first ultrasound to meet our daughter. I couldn’t believe it. I get to see my child in-utero by using sound! Felt like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” But they didn’t stop there, those wild OBGYN rascals.
They asked, “so, what do you guys think, do you want to see the baby 3D?” Well, duh! Assuming they would need another machine, I inquired, “where to now, madam?” Without hesitation, she quickly informed me that the third dimension is acquired by taking multiple shots from multiple angles. Wild, right? One-shot gave us a one dimensional shot of the neonate. Multiple takes, however, gave us an entire 3D image.
Do you think we are somehow different than the baby? Negative. Do you want to see the extra dimension of yourself? It takes another to reveal it. Self-improvement is a community event.
Point three basically recapitulates much of the same sentiment discussed previously. Once more, Marcus Aurelius drops bars more glorious than the hip-hoppers,
“Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”
So my friends, do not allow this culture to call the shots for you. Endure. Prevail. Be willing to challenge the status quo – join the tradition of giants who willingly undertook this arduous task. Socrates couldn’t convince the masses. Neither could Buddha. Hell, they even killed Jesus. But luckily, they still have you.
Live long and prosper. ?