A Pandemic Puppy

With my long-overdue first blog post of 2020, I’ve decided not to write about the global pandemic or anything directly related to the current economic, social, and political unrest in the country. I do care about public health, social justice, and engaging in dialogue to solve our problems. But right now I’m fatigued by the never-ending news cycle, the divisiveness, and the cynicism of the present moment. I want to explore other things.

Two Dogs
Mako and Togo

I’ve written before about our family Labradoodle, noting how he used to chew up the sprinklers and wolf down an entire plate of brownies delivered to us by the neighbors. Mako has long outgrown the puppy stage, although he still barks up a storm whenever the doorbell rings, even if the visitor turns out to be a familiar-smelling family member. He also bolts out an open door if he senses another dog nearby. But on the whole, he’s a trusted and beloved family pet. Always a peacemaker, Mako dashes over and blocks anyone who’s raising their voice or behaving aggressively.

Wally Conron, the Australian dog breeder credited for inventing the Labradoodle, has in recent years expressed regret over creating a “Frankenstein’s monster.” He’s referring mostly to the unscrupulous breeders who create puppy mills and carelessly propagate mental or physical health problems in the breed. The Labradoodle was originally designed for people who were allergic to Labrador Retrievers but needed a good service dog. With the proper training, our Mako could certainly fill such a need. Since he’s just a first generation Labradoodle (his father was a poodle and his mother was a lab), he requires frequent haircuts to keep shedding to a minimum. But we think he’s very nearly the perfect pet.

Over the summer, our nine-year-old daughter begged us to get another dog. She argued that Mako needed a companion, and we finally relented. Of course her real reason was the irresistible enchantment of owning a cute puppy. We ultimately decided on and paid too much for a Yorkshire Terrier / Poodle / Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix.

As a typical puppy who nips at your heals, chews up your socks, and has frequent accidents in the house, Togo quickly left the honeymoon phase, convincing our daughter that what she really wanted was a kitten. To her credit, she hasn’t given up on her puppy training, and Togo will now sit, lay, and shake both paws on a consistent basis. He’s also a good lap dog, willing to quietly cuddle on the couch or daintily chew on a toy while we watch a movie. Togo still won’t obediently come when he’s caught up in something more interesting outside. And he’s often a little too feisty with our two-year-old granddaughters. But his biggest problem is that he doesn’t get along with Mako.

As they enter their third month together, Togo still spends a good part of each day leaping up on his older brother, biting his ears, back legs, and anything else he can sink his teeth into. Mako moans and groans as he firmly yet gently pins Togo on his little back again and again, asserting his dominance as the Alpha male. But Togo doesn’t quit, repeating the same pattern of behavior day after day and night after night. Of course a lot of this could be written off to playfulness or the dog-equivalent of sibling rivalry. And it has never turned into a real dogfight. But it’s almost as hard for me to watch as the first presidential debate of 2020, which by some curious coincidence is taking place this evening as I write. As far as I know, very little blood has been drawn and both dogs remain healthy. But just about every chance he gets, Mako removes himself from the presence of his annoying little brother. If Togo is outside, Mako prefers staying inside.

So what’s going on with these two dogs who don’t seem to like each other very much? With a little research, I discovered some helpful historical insights about Yorkshire Terriers. Before they became popular as upper class companion dogs in the late 19th century, Yorkies were used as “ratters,” small dogs that miners or mill workers would carry with them to control rats and other rodents. Yorkies were also used to hunt fox, badgers, and other wild animals in the fields. As they cornered burrowing animals who were defending their dens, Yorkies displayed the pugnacious and courageous qualities of hunting dogs.

Perhaps this historical background can help me come to grips with the natural instincts behind dysfunctional doggie relationships. I’m hopeful that Togo and Mako will learn to like each other and become the friendly companions that my daughter had envisioned. Only time will tell if they’re capable of living in peace and harmony, and I’ll have to report back on their progress in a couple of years. In the meantime, I’d prefer not watching two dogs who seem to be vying to become the pack leader. For that matter, I’d also prefer not watching presidential debates.

Investing in the Things that Matter Most in 2020

Since my 50th birthday, I’ve been paying more attention to online advertisements that promote financial investment strategies. My wife and I are pleased that we’ve made some progress with our retirement savings this past year. We’re hoping for an even more prosperous year in 2020.

Of course a life well-lived extends far beyond financial security. Integrity, selflessness, and generosity all require investing in the things that matter most.

As we enter a new decade, I invite each of us to to strengthen our retirement portfolios with the following key investments.

  1. Invest in Relationships – In 1938, scientists began tracking the health and happiness of 268 Harvard sophomores. This longitudinal study has continued to the present day, expanding to the children and grandchildren of the original subjects. One of its most resounding conclusions is that relationships are more important than anything else, including money, fame, and personal accomplishments. Researchers found that those who enjoyed warm and satisfying relationships at age 50 were by far the happiest at age 80. They had more robust physical, mental, and emotional health. The takeaway? If you want enduring happiness well into your golden years, make your investments in family and close friendships the most important part of your retirement portfolio.
  2. Invest in Learning – Many religious traditions affirm that knowledge is the only thing we can carry with us into the eternities. Whether or not this is true, most of us understand the power of education and the value of truth. But too often we rest on our laurels and stop learning, essentially cutting ourselves off from the vast tree of knowledge that fills the earth. Confucius taught that while the wise are confident regarding what they do know, their endless quest for knowledge makes them keenly aware of what they do not In many cases, truth can only be found by examining both sides of an issue. Rigid, uncompromising positions can blind both our hearts and our minds. One of our most difficult challenges is to learn from those we disagree with, those who might oppose our worldview. But with an open mind and a little humility, we can rise above ignorance and learn something new every day of our lives.
  3. Invest in Kindness – When we invest money in financial markets, we expect to see a vigorous return at some future time. But some of life’s greatest rewards come when we give selfless gifts without expecting anything in return. Such gifts are more likely to produce gratitude, which in turn inspires generosity toward others who might be incapable of returning the favor. All the while, karma works steadily in the background, generating priceless, immaterial gifts that make their way back to the original giver. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to this as the law of compensation: “Love and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation.” While love and kindness are not always reciprocated immediately, the cosmic laws of nature ensure that we will be compensated in the long run. Emerson affirms that sooner or later, benevolence returns to us through the intervention of “a third silent party to all our bargains.”
  4. Invest in the Present Moment – Over the past twenty years or so, the field of positive psychology has exploded with thousands of studies on the science of happiness. Researchers often promote character strengths and attitudes that lead to more flourishing lives. For example, they maintain that one of the keys to happiness is to live more fully in the present. This doesn’t mean that we neglect our responsibility to prepare for the future. In fact, having an eye toward the future can guide and inspire our present actions. True joy can then be found in the small and simple things, as we immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature and the pleasure of family and friends. Many of us struggle to slow down and live in the moment, while others lack the patience and foresight to prepare for the future. As we cultivate the ability to do both, we’re more likely to achieve the balance that leads to lasting happiness.

As the new year approaches, may we all invest in timeless wisdom that can light our path toward the abundant life. May we find an abundance of love, an abundance of joy, and an abundance of truth. And may this abundance overflow into the lives of those we encounter every day.

10 Tips for Cultivating Patience in an Impatient World

As an elementary school teacher, my wife finds great fulfillment in helping her sixth graders improve their math skills. But she almost always has to deal with a few students who moan about having to learn new things. They lack the patience to correct their mistakes and practice until they’ve achieved mastery. Their impatience in turn tries the patience of their teacher.

At church, at home, and in the workplace our impatience can start to feed on the impatience of others. Since none of us have the patience of Job, all of us try each other’s patience. Stopping this vicious circle requires a little more patience from all of us. This means being willing to give others – and ourselves – time to change.

Of course, patience is not always a virtue. Sometimes teachers need to send disruptive students to the principal’s office. Sometimes we need to seize the day and take immediate action. Justice, courage, and kindness often call on us to make a difference without delay.

But it goes without saying that most of life’s challenges require patience. It takes patience to accomplish worthwhile goals. It takes patience to face unexpected trials such as serious illness, financial setbacks, and failed relationships. It takes patience to deal with life’s daily problems, including backed up freeways, bad weather, and slow lines at the grocery store.

One of the obstacles to developing patience is that our modern world caters to convenience and immediate gratification. We don’t need to grow a garden when we can pick up whatever we need from a convenience store. We don’t need to spend our time with home-cooked meals when restaurants and pre-packaged meals are always available. We don’t need to save up money to buy a new car when we can get a low-interest loan and buy it now. We don’t need to wait a week for our favorite television show when we can watch the entire series over the weekend on Netflix. And we don’t need patience to travel a thousand miles when we can hop on a plane and be there in a couple of hours.

So how can we cultivate patience in an impatient world? Here are ten tips.

The first two are taken from a 2017 journal article published in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality by Sarah Schnitker and her colleagues at Fuller Theological Seminary.

1. Attach meaning to suffering.

Schnitker describes how religious communities generally promote the idea that some forms of suffering can be redemptive, leading to self-mastery, empathy, and greater life-fulfillment. This is what she calls a “transcendent narrative identity.” It provides the strength to look beyond present suffering and work toward a future where our lives have changed for the better.

2. Learn to control your emotions.

Schnitker and her fellow psychologists identify emotional regulation as another core aspect of patience. It’s easy to become frustrated, annoyed, and even bitter when things don’t go our way. But acting on negative emotions almost always makes situations worse. When I start to get impatient, I try to imagine how I would respond in my present circumstances if I were patient. Every once in a while, this sort of cognitive reappraisal helps me respond more calmly with a long-term perspective.

3. Look to nature for inspiration.

Ralph Waldo Emerson offers this advice: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” It takes time to develop a strong root system that can support sturdy branches and bear fruit. We’re more likely to develop patience when we understand that disappointment and heartache can make us more capable of tasting the fruit of happiness in the future.

4. View patience as a golden mean

Aristotle helpfully describes most virtues as the golden mean between two extremes. For example, true courage is found somewhere between cowardice, on one hand, and recklessness, on the other. In a similar way, possessing patience means that we avoid foolish, impetuous actions. But it also means that we avoid a passive or lazy acceptance of suffering, injustice, and mediocrity.

5. Be humble enough to take small steps

For me personally, patience implies the willingness to take small steps to improve my life and the lives of those around me. Building a business, raising a family, and getting an education are made up of little things that add up over a long period of time. This same principle applies to recovering from the emotional wounds caused by unhealthy relationships. Shakespeare’s Othello explains it best: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

6. Be consistent in taking the small steps

In working toward an ambitious goal, I find that I need to set aside non-negotiable time every day, even if it’s just a few minutes, to do something concrete. If I go more than a day or two without taking any steps toward realizing my goal, the future that I had envisioned grows dim and I begin to lose hope. This is one of the reasons why scriptural counsel often pairs patience with diligence.

7. Be a finisher

Because I’m naturally an impatient person, I tend to get discouraged and move on to something else when I don’t see results as quickly as I’d like. This brings up the importance of personal commitment. Devote yourself to worthy causes and see your projects through to the end. Knowing that you’re a finisher can help you stay the course.

8. Don’t try to control other people

Self-mastery is one of the cornerstones of a happy life. We need to control our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions. But one of the surest paths to unhappiness is trying to control other people. Persuade family members, friends, and strangers through your example. Then give the people you love room to change. Try to remain pleasant and never give up on them.

9. Remember how tough you are

Patience is more about toughness than weakness and passivity. When life gets overwhelming, remind yourself of the many challenges and difficulties you’ve overcome in the past. You’ll find hidden strength and happiness if you just keep moving forward.

10. Cultivate hope for a brighter future

Patience is much more than a willingness to endure suffering. It’s about believing in a brighter future that comes one small, imperfect step at a time.

Ambition and the Virtue that Cannot be Named

Aristotle

Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken another long break from most of my online distractions, including news articles and streaming movies. The timing has been particularly good, because I’m working toward an ambitious project deadline at work. Outside of work, I’ve spent more time than usual fixing sprinklers, cleaning the garage, and playing games with my family. With less anxiety and greater mental focus, my voluntary “fasting” from online entertainment has again been a very good thing.

One of the insights I’ve gained this time around is the importance of having some sort of passion or ambition to fill the void left by the things I’ve taken out of my life. A lack of ambition is often what leads to overindulgence in diversions in the first place. However, ambition can also get out of hand. An all-encompassing sort of ambition leads to neglecting personal health, family relationships, and other important aspects of our lives.

Once again, our discussion of character leads back to Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that we typically use the word “ambition” (philotimia, or the love of honor) to refer to someone who has excessive ambition. And we usually call someone “unambitious” if they suffer from a deficiency in their desire for honor or excellence.

Aristotle observes that unlike other virtues such as courage, wisdom, or self-mastery, the golden mean with respect to seeking honor does not have a name. But he insists that this virtue has to exist, since it’s possible to seek honor both too much and too little. The person who possesses the golden mean seeks honor in the right way, from the right source, and in the right amount.

From a religious perspective, we might view the “honors of men” as an unworthy pursuit, especially since they typically distract us from the love of God and the love of our fellow beings. To justify any competitive desire for excellence and honor, we could see it as a way to glorify God and inspire others. The 1924 Olympic gold medalist (and Christian missionary) Eric Liddell insisted: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

I personally haven’t figured this all out. I know that ambition can lead people to compromise their integrity and interfere with their devotion to God. But I also believe that a noble form of ambition is essential in fortifying good people against the allure of self-destructive behavior.

Self-Mastery Training

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has defined self-control as a “moral muscle” that can become fatigued through overexertion. Like any other muscle, our ability to exercise self-control has limits. For example, we can’t expect to put ourselves in compromising situations time after time without eventually giving in to temptation. And we need to give ourselves regular breaks from daily challenges and responsibilities — time to relax and recharge our willpower, as it were.

However, we can also engage in a regular exercise regimen to strengthen our moral muscle. I like to call such exercise “moderate asceticism.” We typically associate asceticism with the radical self-denial and otherworldly lifestyle of monks and hermits. But I believe moderate forms of asceticism should have an important place in each of our lives. These practices might not only be appropriate, but essential in cultivating true self-mastery.

It’s interesting that our English word “asceticism” is derived from the Greek word ἄσκησις (pronounced askesis), which originally meant training or exercise, specifically athletic training. If we bring both the ancient and modern meanings together, we might suggest that just as an athlete needs to train his or her mind and body to reach the highest level of competition, we all need to train our minds and bodies to acquire cardinal virtues such as practical wisdom and self-mastery. This is the kind of training that’s not just for addicts and others who need therapy. It’s for all of us who are committed to developing self-mastery a few small steps at a time.

Here are ten practical examples of moderate asceticism that I encourage you to try on a regular basis.

  1. Every month or so, consider fasting for 24 hours, skipping a couple of meals and spending time focusing on the needs of your soul more than the needs of your body. Donate the food or the money you would have spent on food to a local food bank for needy families.
  2. Wake up early in the morning every day for two weeks. Whether it’s 4, 5, or 6 am, wake up at the same time every morning, regardless of when you go to sleep. Spend some time meditating, reflecting on your life’s purpose, and planning for the day. If you’re a man or woman of religious faith, spend a few minutes each morning in earnest prayer.
  3. Strictly limit your technology and media consumption for an entire week. You might consider limiting your use of the Internet and email to your time at work. Use your time at home to engage in old-fashioned activities such as playing board games with the family, reading, and having face-to-face conversations.
  4. Lock up your credit cards for an entire month and limit purchases to your essential needs. At the end of the month, give all of your surplus budget away to charity.
  5. Take a cold shower every morning for a week.
  6. Regularly go through your closet and remove a few items of clothing that you haven’t worn in a long time. Give them away to a local thrift store. Keep doing this every few weeks until you begin to feel that your life has been simplified. Try the same exercise with other material possessions in your life.
  7. If you haven’t developed the habit of exercising regularly, set aside one week to begin such a habit. Choose a time to engage in vigorous exercise every day for that entire week.
  8. Devote an hour each day to learning a foreign language. Fill the entire hour with rigorous, focused study and practice.
  9. Cancel your leisure activities for two weekends in a row. Spend those weekends instead volunteering at a soup kitchen or other community service program.
  10. Commit yourself to a strict one-week diet, limiting your calories by one-third, eliminating sweets, and avoiding all fast food restaurants.

Any one of these practices will improve your moral conditioning and make you more capable of achieving excellence in the things that really matter in your life.

* For more insights on self-mastery and the other cardinal virtues, check out my book, The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.

Removing Online Distractions Provides Space for Change

Do you want to know the secret to keeping New Year’s resolutions? Remove your online distractions. Anyone can do it in four simple steps. Let me show you how.

Step one is to reflect honestly on the current state of your life. This exercise will inspire the urgency you need to make important changes. What kind of person do you really want to be? What do you wish you were doing that you’re not doing now? Have you given up on cherished hopes and dreams? If you had only a year left to live, what would you spend your time doing?

Put your phone on airplane mode, grab a pencil and take some notes on each of these questions.

Step two is to make room for meaningful change by removing distractions. What are you immediately drawn to when you’re bored, tired or stressed out?

Social media, online shopping, binge-watching your favorite shows on Netflix or Hulu, playing video games, watching sports or devouring the latest political commentary — these are all mind-altering drugs that keep you pacified and distracted from achieving your dreams. They distort reality by giving you a shot of dopamine and a false sense of accomplishment.

Earlier this month, I went cold turkey on two of my biggest distractions: online news and televised sporting events. Several of my friends and family members have recently taken a 10-day break, or “fast,” from social media.

The key to removing these modern distractions is to make it more difficult to find them. Use built-in features of your favorite web browser to block news, shopping or video streaming websites. Temporarily disable or pause your Netflix account. Uninstall or disable apps on your phone. Turn off notifications and cancel subscriptions. Whatever method you decide to use, don’t rely entirely on your willpower to resist the lure of temptation. Use your device settings as a digital support system.

Step three is to commit yourself to a grand project that aligns with your personal calling in life.

Removing mind-numbing distractions creates a vacuum that needs to be filled by more worthwhile things. Write a book. Put your time and talents to work in a community organization. Make a plan for paying off your student loans within the next five years. Improve your health with a personal fitness program. Prepare yourself for a new vocation. Become fluent in another language.

Now, you might think you don’t have a personal calling. Maybe you don’t see any unique gifts or opportunities in your life that could serve as the basis for a glorious venture. If this is true, then take a step back and use your imagination. Whether you enjoy playing video games, binging on Netflix, shopping online or watching sports, you know how to imagine yourself as somebody else. So put your well-developed imagination to work on your own life. Reimagine your future self as a transformed, purpose-driven being: more courageous, more caring, more disciplined and more aware of your hidden talents.

In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.” If you’re facing a recent track record of failure, you may need to change direction a bit. But don’t ever give up on yourself. Make room for divine guidance, put your rationality to work and commit yourself to an ambitious calling.

Step four is to take small steps toward accomplishing your goals. Glorious triumphs are always achieved incrementally. You need a grand vision or project to motivate your small steps. But the key to success is to learn from your mistakes and celebrate progress, no matter how small. Small wins give you momentum, creating a snowball effect toward greatness.

A couple of years ago, as part of my desire to write and publish, I decided to start a blog. To improve my writing, I committed myself to just one blog post per month. At the end of the year, I could look back and celebrate 12 published posts.

While each post was just a small step, it gave me something to build on during the next month, something to learn from, something to refine.

Don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged by the ambitious nature of your project. Maintain the lofty vision of who you want to be and what you want to accomplish. But embrace progress in a way that scorns the all-or-nothing mindset.

In summary, here are the four steps: Take time to reflect on what’s missing in your life, remove your biggest distractions, commit yourself to a grand project, and celebrate small, imperfect steps toward your ultimate goals.

After a few distraction-free days or weeks, if you want to plug yourself back into the internet, you’ll be much more capable of balance. But you might just be too busy for some of your old diversions.

* This article was previously published as a guest opinion in the Deseret News on December 29, 2018.

Treasures of the Heart

My family and I have been working on a course of study in the New Testament since the beginning of the year. So far, our reading in the Gospels keeps bringing us back to one of Jesus’ central teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: the importance of the desires of our hearts. In Matthew 6, Jesus warns against storing up treasures on earth instead of treasures in heaven. Otherwise, we end up trying to serve two masters, God and wealth.

One way to view these teachings is to focus on securing blessings in the afterlife by doing the right things for the right reasons. This approach can bear some good fruit, especially if it means serving others more wholeheartedly, becoming less selfish, and living with greater hope and courage. But if storing up treasures in heaven means refusing to live in the present moment and failing to find joy in life’s simple pleasures, we’re probably missing Jesus’ point.

I’ve personally benefited from trying to understand the treasures of my own heart, which I see as my true desires and my deepest passions. What I’ve found is that my heart is remarkably fickle. As I watch my favorite sports team on TV, I’m pretty sure my greatest desire is to see them win the game. At other times, I believe I want financial success more than anything else. While in the midst of an uncomfortable social situation, I just want to escape. And when my alarm rings early in the morning, my only desire is to secure a little more sleep.

Neuroscientists tell us that we can’t really think about more than one thing at the same time. While we can switch our focus between tasks at astonishing speed, human multitasking is for the most part a myth. Our brain’s prefrontal cortex, which exercises executive control, can focus on only one thought at a time.

I think the same principle applies to the treasures of the heart. It makes sense that we can desire only one thing at the same time. If this is true, what can it teach us about the effects of modern technology on character development?

The first thing to come to mind is the power of distraction in the 21st century. Whenever I’m experiencing something unpleasant, I can pull out my smartphone and immediately turn my heart to any number of shallow desires. I can read the latest sports commentaries, interesting op-ed columns, and scintillating social media posts. Of course none of these sources align very well with what I claim to be my greatest desires, my heart’s treasure. But as I continue to spend my precious time with them, they might as well be my greatest desires.

According to Jesus’ parable of the sower, the word of God can be “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” keeping the fruit from maturing to perfection. In the same way, the things that matter most can be choked by a constant stream of online diversions.

My own experience persuades me that social media fasts, television fasts, and online news fasts are essential in getting us back in touch with our true desires that may have been smothered and stunted by a lack of nourishment.

But shunning distraction is not enough. Treasuring up what we most value means consistently doing hard things. Without putting thoughtful, strenuous effort into what we desire, we inevitably slip back into old habits, turning to sources of immediate gratification.

Sometimes I’m foolish enough to think I can get what I want out of life without clear goals and rigorous planning. But modern life has far too many distractions that need to be explicitly sacrificed to secure the treasures of the heart.

Constraining Greatness

Aristotle

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Avram Alpert suggests that the ideal of greatness can be an obstacle to achieving the good life. On the surface, his promotion of the “The Good-Enough Life” seems little more than the latest bashing of Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement.

But Alpert’s insights are actually grounded in both practical experience and sensible philosophical reflection. His most persuasive example is taken from D.W. Winnicott, who suggests that the “good-enough mother” is one who is not merely “adequate or average,” but who manages to love and care for her children while allowing them sufficient autonomy to prepare for the inherent troubles of life. As any conscientious parent knows, this is a daunting task, whatever term we use to describe it.

According to Alpert, the good-enough life creates conditions for everyone to thrive, to enable others to be good enough to meet their personal challenges and responsibilities. Such an ideal does not pardon mediocrity or encourage apathy. “Good-enough” implies virtue and goodness in a comprehensive sense.

Striving for a comprehensive level of goodness might actually be more difficult (and more heroic) than a misguided quest for extraordinary distinction in a narrow sphere.

Clearly, Alpert is arguing against shallow conceptions of greatness—when grand achievements come at the expense of others or when fame is based on one-dimensional success. Lamentably, flimsy notions of greatness prevail in our society. We celebrate successful athletes, musicians, and business executives whose personal lives often fail to reach even the lowest standards of respectability. The towering heights of their public achievements overshadow the repulsiveness of their more private affairs.

If the burden of greatness compels us to neglect family relationships and basic standards of decency, we ought to abandon it, as Alpert suggests. Or we can choose to redefine greatness as a multi-faceted achievement of virtue.

Alpert places Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the same “greatness” camp as other flawed philosophical systems of the western world. But at the heart of Aristotle’s definition of virtue is unity and balance. Aristotelian wisdom does not countenance either excess or deficiency in any area of life. The golden mean applies to each individual virtue as well as to the fullness of virtue achieved within a complete human life.

Of course we can argue that Aristotle’s magnanimity, his great-souled man, represents an unreachable ideal. But greatness as an unreachable ideal is much different from the small-minded celebration of intemperance, which is what Alpert is really arguing against.

So another way of looking at the ideal of greatness is that it needs to be constrained by our commitment to a wide range of virtues and responsibilities. For example, we cannot be great while violating the principles of justice or failing to control our emotions.

So how does the the “good-enough life” philosophy make its way into real life? Here’s an example from my professional work. I’m currently developing an online course designed to teach students real-world skills in using information technology. With the other members of my development team, we’ve committed to deliver a great course. We’re committed to the ideal of greatness.

But since we live in the real world, my team and I understand that our greatness will be constrained by several other development criteria. First, we need to prepare students to pass an IT industry certification. Second, we have an extremely tight development schedule. The course needs to be delivered at the beginning of July. And third, we need to keep our sanity and avoid burnout. Each of us have family responsibilities and other commitments that would be neglected by working 80 hours per week. So our challenge is to prepare students for real-world success, help them achieve an industry certification, deliver the course on time, and maintain our physical and mental health.

Because we don’t have unlimited time and resources, we’re forced to do “good-enough” work in each of these areas. Fortunately, we’re employed by a company that supports the ideal of work-life balance. And we have significant control over content development decisions. For example, every concept we teach does not require a lengthy (and expensive) video presentation. We can also reuse some material from other courses.

In this scenario, none of our development constraints force us to give up on instructional quality or to work 16-hour days. They encourage us to prioritize our development efforts and to work more efficiently than we otherwise would.

In the end, a constrained view of greatness can actually be empowering, as long as we have the autonomy to make difficult decisions and the willingness to help each other when we personally fall short.

Character Transformation

William James

Aristotle argued that extreme vices, such as willful self-indulgence and stinginess, are incurable. Such a claim makes Ebeneezer Scrooge’s fictional transformation all the more remarkable.

As a general rule, Aristotle is probably right. Deeply ingrained habits are difficult to change. Yet some of us are acquainted with a present-day Jean Valjean or Saul of Tarsus, someone who has overcome vicious character flaws through a sudden transformation.

Several weeks ago I rediscovered William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, which was published well over 100 years ago. In Varieties, he takes religious conversion seriously, especially when it results in an observable change in behavior, character, or personality.

At the end of his chapter on the religion of healthy mindedness, James quotes an anonymous account shared by a friend:

“At the urgent request of friends, and with no faith and hardly any hope (possibly owing to a previous unsuccessful experience with a Christian Scientist), our little daughter was placed under the care of a healer, and cured of a trouble about which the physician had been very discouraging in his diagnosis. This interested me, and I began studying earnestly the method and philosophy of this method of healing. Gradually an inner peace and tranquility came to me in so positive a way that my manner changed greatly. My children and friends noticed the change and commented upon it. All feelings of irritability disappeared. Even the expression of my face changed noticeably.

“I had been bigoted, aggressive, and intolerant in discussion, both in public and private. I grew broadly tolerant and receptive toward the views of others. I had been nervous and irritable, coming home two or three times a week with a sick headache induced, as I then supposed, by dyspepsia and catarrh. I grew serene and gentle, and the physical troubles entirely disappeared. I had been in the habit of approaching every business interview with an almost morbid dread. I now meet every one with confidence and inner calm.

“I may say that the growth has all been toward the elimination of selfishness. I do not mean simply the grosser, more sensual forms, but those subtler and generally unrecognized kinds, such as express themselves in sorrow, grief, regret, envy, etc. It has been in the direction of a practical, working realization of the immanence of God and the Divinity of man’s true, inner self.”

Notice how accurately this man describes 21st century problems, including intolerance, selfishness, and anxiety. Today we might use different terms for the physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, such as nausea and indigestion rather than dyspepsia and catarrh. But the rest of his self-diagnosis sounds contemporary.

James’s purpose in sharing the account is not to judge the literal truth value of Christian Science beliefs. For example, he is not interested in establishing whether sickness is actually an illusion or whether God is the principle of unconditional and unchanging love. He simply wants to observe and consider the practical effects of a system of beliefs. If the effects are favorable and profound, those beliefs should not be dismissed as false. Their pragmatic value can shed light on the human condition.

James shows how people with different dispositions and mindsets respond to different sets of beliefs. For example, someone who believes in the essential goodness of human nature (“the healthy-minded”) is more likely to change by ignoring evil and accentuating the positive aspects of her life. On the other hand, someone whose worldview has been shaped by a greater awareness of pain, suffering, and the ultimate futility of mortal life (“the sick soul”) will require a much different type of rebirth, a different passageway to change.

Regardless of why or how people change, the fact that they do change ought to empower us. Knowing that someone, anyone, has experienced a character transformation can have the practical effect of giving the rest of us hope — hope in the potential goodness and malleability of our own character.

With this post, I am beginning a series of features on real people who have experienced a profound shift in their way of thinking and acting. I will be investigating credible reports of character transformation. How permanent are such transformations? Can the changes be verified? What beliefs and actions generally lead to such changes?

My intent is to explore real accounts, whether they’re based on a religious conversion or a new philosophy of life and whether they result in unselfishness, serenity, unprecedented confidence, or some other characteristic of a reformed life.

I want to be inspired by authentic stories of personal change.

Responding to Anxiety with Courage and a Glimmer of Hope

Aristotle

As the number one mental health issue in North America, anxiety is often a debilitating problem for both teens and adults. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that up to 25 percent of teenagers suffer from anxiety disorders. While most forms are highly treatable, the majority of sufferers do not seek professional treatment.

The relentless nature of anxiety can provide a rigorous test of character. Many sources of anxiety, such as toxic family relationships and economic hardship, give rise to a sense of hopelessness. But compassionate friends and loved ones can help those who suffer to discover the courage, wisdom, and inner strength to move forward.

Social scientific research suggests that people with anxiety often underestimate their capacity for courage. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Clemson psychologist Cynthia Pury and her colleagues make the distinction between general and personal courage. They report that when most people think about courage, they see it as a fearless and confident attribute possessed only by others. This is the definition of general courage—the type of heroic effort we recognize and praise in other people. Personal courage, on the other hand, is the type we might ascribe to ourselves. People with the self-awareness to see their personal actions as courageous tend to define courage as a response to vulnerability, anxiety, and fear. In fact, this is the type we see most often in real life. Ordinary people become heroes when they rise up to do what needs to be done — in spite of weakness.

Aristotle would likely agree with modern social science that anxiety, fear, and self-doubt are built into courage. He suggests that courage is not founded on personal strength or a feeling of invincibility. Instead, it’s built on the conviction that we’re acting in the service of a noble cause, regardless of how prepared we are for battle. According to Aristotle, knowing that we’re doing the right thing empowers us to manage the pain that frequently accompanies self-sacrifice.

Without a doubt, moving forward in the face of chronic anxiety takes courage. But taking courage is not easy when an intensely negative and overpowering emotion is flowing through our minds. Telling someone to “stop worrying” or to “have courage” is almost always misguided advice. To cultivate courage, we need at least a slight glimmer of hope. This hope can come from a trusted friend who convinces us that relationships can improve and that our personal goals are worth fighting for — even against all odds.

Many therapists recommend a simple activity to help anxiety sufferers step away from their emotions and allow the more rational part of the brain to reclaim executive control. The first step is to articulate and then write down a concrete list of things we’re worried about. Sometimes the very act of identifying what lies behind an oppressive emotion can offer immediate relief.

The second step is to separate the items in our list into two categories: things we can control and things we can’t. Most of the things we worry about include both aspects, one that’s well within our power to influence and another that’s almost entirely beyond our control. For example, if I’m worried about an upcoming test at school, I should realize that I can control how much time I study for the test. But I can’t guarantee a passing score and I can’t control what my peers or my instructor might think of me if I do poorly. If I’m worried about attending a social gathering, I can control whether I approach people with a smile and a friendly greeting. But I can’t control whether or not a stranger likes me based on her first impression.

The worries we can’t do much about are frequently the most paralyzing because they’re accompanied by a sense of powerlessness. If spelling them out on paper doesn’t help us let them go, we can try other techniques like mindfulness breathing exercises or taking a walk in nature. Whatever relaxation method we choose, at some point we need to embrace the fact that some worries impose an unreasonable burden that we can’t afford to carry.

So what about the things we can control? Recent studies on test anxiety have found that at least some stress can be a good thing. Students who tend to do well on exams learn to embrace their anxiety and channel it toward greater focus and positive mental energy. Rather than trying to stop worrying about an exam, they transform their anxiety into excitement. They commit themselves to a plan of study and then anxiously immerse themselves in what they can control. In the language of character development, they create the conditions for courage by resolving on a plan of action.

Anxiety is an urgent public health challenge with no easy solutions. But gentle encouragement and honest self-appraisal can often provide the hope we need to face our fears with courage and grace.