Commitment: Freedom and Responsibility

It recently occurred to my wife and I that we will have four children attending college this coming fall. Setting aside our concerns over how they will afford tuition, books, and housing, our greatest hope is that they will each make wise choices regarding their future.

A free, democratic society offers citizens great latitude in choosing educational and career paths. My children are extremely fortunate to have been raised in a stable, middle-class family within strong communities. They’ve attended exceptional secondary schools in Massachusetts, California, and Utah. Each of these schools has given them opportunities to develop their talents and to pursue a wide ranges of interests inside and outside the classroom.

Upon entering college, students discover the freedom and responsibility to become whoever they want to become. This freedom can be both exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time.  Should they choose a stable, well-defined profession such as teaching, medicine, business, or the law? Or should they simply pursue a broad liberal arts education with more definite career choices to follow? How will the prospects of marriage and family responsibilities impact educational and career paths?

I firmly believe that every person possesses unique gifts that can only be developed through strenuous effort and refined through adversity. William James, the father of modern psychology, speaks of the challenge each of us face in realizing our potential: “Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half-awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”

So what is the cure for slumbering energies and indecisiveness? The answer lies in our ability to make firm commitments. Regardless of the educational path they choose, successful college students know that realizing their potential requires both short- and long-term commitments. The freedom to choose one path implies the need to abandon other paths. After exploring their options, mature students make a decision and then commit themselves to the long and arduous path toward self-mastery. In addition to completing degree programs and mastering skills, vital commitments include securing the happiness of a spouse and fulfilling parental responsibilities.

Ralph Waldo Emerson compares the power of personal commitment to the well-established order of nature: “And so I think that the last lesson of life, the choral song which rises from all elements and all angels, is a voluntary obedience, a necessitated freedom. Man is made of the same atoms as the world is; he shares the same impressions, predispositions, and destiny. When his mind is illuminated, when his heart is kind, he throws himself joyfully into the sublime order, and does, with knowledge, what the stones do by structure.”

Ideally, students discover an educational and career path that coincides with a clear life purpose, a sense of their personal calling. Emerson suggests that our true vocation is one that maximizes our freedom and empowers us to do what only we are capable of doing. He describes how such a calling invites us “to endless exertion,” where “all obstruction is taken away” as we “sweep serenely over a deepening channel into an infinite sea.”

How can we know that we’ve discovered our personal calling? Emerson claims that each of us has “one direction in which all space is open” to us. Some people possess a clear sense of this direction from a very young age. Others need more time to consider their options. And some are forced to reconsider after becoming frustrated with unfulfilling vocations.

Winding career paths don’t necessarily mean people are indecisive or aimless. It may simply mean that they have been willing to take advantage of new opportunities to learn and grow, to pursue their personal calling wherever it may lead. As long as their lives are grounded in firm commitments, they will discover unexpected success along the way. I have a friend who has struggled to begin a side business with a full-time job and heavy family responsibilities. To accomplish his goal, he made and fulfilled a commitment to wake up every morning at 4:30 a.m. 

Purposeful commitment means that we embrace both freedom and  responsibility. Rather than being driven by the need for constant entertainment, we find fulfillment through service to others. Rather than being controlled by negative emotion, we find pleasure in disciplined habits. And rather than escaping responsibility through mind-altering drugs or digital dependence, we use our freedom to make the world a better place to live and learn.

Undivided Attention: Means to the End of Virtue

Like most parents, I’m concerned about my children’s overabundance of screen time. Tablets, smartphones, and laptops provide instant access to video games, social media, and streaming video, including an unlimited supply of favorite television episodes. Yet sometimes I’m almost as preoccupied as my children. Since my smartphone notifies me about text messages, emails, and important news flashes, I can be summoned at almost any time.

In our age of multitasking and short attention spans, it’s critical to understand that most virtues are built on sustained mental and physical effort. Without attending perceptively to the needs of others, we won’t cultivate a sense of justice in our communities. Without an active awareness of our personal duties and responsibilities, we won’t respond to the call for courage. And without focusing on the most salient aspects of a complex situation, we won’t develop practical wisdom.

As mesmerizing as it can be to immerse ourselves in a 24-hour news cycle, a never-ending feed of social media posts, or a well-crafted movie plot, such activities cannot produce firmness of character. While temporary diversions are appropriate in helping us achieve life balance, most of us embrace distraction as a way of life. We plug ourselves into the Internet.

Years ago, I came across an essay written by French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943). The title of the essay is “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” Weil claims here that “the real object and almost the sole interest” of school work is “the development of the faculty of attention.” No matter what subject we devote ourselves to, the result can be personal transformation and joy: “Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.”

Interestingly, Weil observes that one of the most transforming effects of school studies comes from turning our attention to mistakes. She suggests that we “take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which we have failed . . . without seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake . . . trying to get down to the origin of each fault.” Such actions will generate not only humility, but progress.

So how do we achieve this sanctified state of undivided attention? Weil argues that it is not to be “confused with a kind of muscular effort.” That type of strained approach is both useless and tiring. To produce the kind of transforming results advocated by Weil, we need to embrace the joy of sustained learning. We place our minds in an ardent state of expectation, waiting for truth as an unearned gift.

Weil explains why a state of undivided attention is so difficult to achieve: “Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue.” She continues: “That is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” In other words, to replace vice with virtue, we must actively focus our attention on observing, learning, and improving.

In describing Sherlock Holmes’s extraordinary ability to solve crimes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle paraphrases Thomas Carlyle’s definition of genius as “an infinite capacity for taking pains.” Sherlock’s gift lies in his perceptiveness and sustained concentration on the problem at hand. His colleagues failed to appreciate that his “smallest actions were all directed towards some definite and practical end.”

What prevents us from becoming the Sherlock Holmes of our own life’s problems? More than anything else, it is our lack of attention, the fragmented state of our minds. While we cannot completely escape our frenetic and distracted lives, we can carve out moments for undivided attention. We can wake up early in the morning, leave our smartphones off, and study for an uninterrupted hour. We can take a midday break for a 20-minute walk, disconnected from the Internet and focused on one of our most vexing challenges. We can sit down with family members or friends and fully understand how they’re feeling. These are the moments when we find the joy of learning and the pleasure of communion.

We all need to take time for relaxation and entertainment. But we have a greater need for character development and sustained attention to real life.

Benevolence: Catalyst for Change

In one of my recent podcasts, I pointed out that virtues such as love and benevolence are not always the best foundation for moral behavior in society. One reason is that these virtues tend to be grounded in clan-based loyalties, where our compassion extends only to family, friends, and sometimes fellow citizens. Good will and compassion typically do not guide our behavior toward political enemies and others who may oppose our way of life. But human history has proven time and again that one’s enemies are frequently vulnerable and deserving of sympathy. In such contexts, just laws are needed to illuminate our blind spots. True justice can provide a code of ethical obligations to protect otherwise defenseless people from their would-be oppressors.

This is not to say, however, that benevolence and compassion are less potent or less needed virtues. In fact, benevolence may be the most important virtue for propelling personal and societal change.

As the disposition to do good to others, benevolence is the foundation for generosity and kindness. It cultivates compassion and responds wisely to the genuine needs of others. Benevolence taps into the light of conscience that can only be dimmed by responding to the darker side of human nature.

In Confucianism,  the Chinese character ren is often translated as benevolence. It’s a general virtue that governs human relationships through the principle of love. In ancient Chinese texts, a more accurate translation of ren might be “humanity,” which implies a more comprehensive virtue that encompasses benevolence, wisdom, and other characteristics needed for human flourishing. As our sense of humanity, benevolence can impact the way we treat both friends and foes.

Confucius

Confucius affirms that benevolence or a sense of humanity is one of the core values that allows for true self cultivation. And he reminds us of the tremendous power that can be wielded by benevolence. As the recipient of kindness, my psyche is naturally indebted to my benefactor and inclined to repay their kindness by acting benevolently toward others. The laws of karma dictate that kindness begets kindness. Compassion leads to more compassion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to this principle 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 kindness will not always be reciprocated immediately, the cosmic laws of nature ensure that we will not be cheated in the long run. Sooner or later, benevolence returns to us through the intervention of “a third silent party to all our bargains.”

The preeminence of benevolence is expressed profoundly in the Christian doctrine that God is love. As conveyed in 1 John 4:8, “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The most reliable indicator of personal redemption and conversion is the expression of love and kindness in our daily actions.

While benevolence appears to occupy a less prominent place in Aristotle’s philosophy, we see its expression in other virtues, such as generosity, friendship, and magnanimity. As the essence of human virtue, benevolence promotes healthy personal relationships, compassion and fairness in society, and peace between sovereign nations.

As the virtue that most impacts human relationships, benevolence is an indispensable catalyst for change. In Strength to Love, Martin Luther King states, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Dr. King’s call for change through nonviolent resistance is grounded in the principle of love, which has the power to destroy the forces of evil and establish justice.

When we are consciously aware of the laws of karma or compensation in our personal lives, our benevolence can be expressed as a form of enlightened self-interest. The desire to reap benevolence for ourselves provides ample motivation to treat others benevolently. However, such an approach usually requires patience as well. While kindness and compassion can be reciprocated immediately, change often takes time. This is one of the reasons Confucius counsels his disciples to maintain high expectations of themselves and low expectations of others.

The call to love our enemies provides a particular challenge to the self-interest model. As a full expression of virtue, benevolence does not expect anything in return. We treat others with kindness and respect whether they deserve it or not. And while such a selfless expression of the higher law might not be reciprocated by our enemies, it will always transform us.

Five Tips for Achieving Greater Happiness

Here are five tips for achieving greater happiness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. For more insights on happiness and character development, check out my e-book, The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.

Tip number one: Focus your time and effort more on building your character than securing your happiness. The idea of striving for greater happiness can be paradoxical. Sometimes the more you strive for happiness, the more elusive it becomes. When you try too hard to achieve a perennial state of happiness, you can actually end up more vexed and disappointed than you would otherwise be. You probably know overly anxious people who are constantly asking themselves why they’re not happy. It’s important to study and reflect on the meaning of happiness, but there’s no question that we can overdo it. Find your purpose, build your character, do noble things, and most of the time happiness will find you.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau. Near the end of Walden, he declares, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Happiness is about confidently and steadily living the life we’ve imagined and then finding an unexpected success.

Tip number two: Understand that adversity can refine your character and make you more capable of experiencing happiness in the future. During difficult times, remind yourself that your character is built to manage those very difficulties. Generally speaking, happiness is less about what happens to you and more about responding to your own life’s challenges in a way that builds your character and confidence.

A quote from an unknown author sheds some light on this point: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” If we allow it, adversity can give us two invaluable gifts. First, it reveals our character strengths and weaknesses, showing where to direct our self-improvement efforts. Second, adversity can be a refining power, giving us confidence and stability in successfully facing future challenges.

Tip number three: Find joy in the simple, quiet, everyday moments with family and friends. You should by all means dream big and stay motivated for achieving great things in your life. But if you ever feel like family responsibilities are preventing you from fulfilling your true purpose, you probably need to sort out your priorities. There’s no higher purpose than reaching out to family and friends, supporting them in ways that only you can. More than anything else, genuine happiness is about finding joy in these ordinary, unremarkable moments.

Tip number four: Strenuously avoid the two unmistakable adversaries of happiness, blame and self-pity, especially during moments of intense disappointment. We know that happiness depends to some extent on other people. But one of the surest paths to unhappiness is to blame others for your lack of good fortune and to feel sorry for yourself. On avoiding self-pity, I admire Thoreau’s encouragement: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names…. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.”

ConfuciusOn finding happiness when those we love and depend on fail to meet our expectations, I appreciate the wisdom of Confucius. His key to “banishing discontent” is “to demand much from oneself and little from others.” Be generous and forgiving of other people’s shortcomings. And while striving for lofty personal goals in terms of your own character development, be charitable to yourself too. So much of life is about moving forward with hope, avoiding negativity in spite of frequent failure. When life knocks you down, pick yourself right back up and keep going. Refuse to allow yourself to wallow in self-pity and to blame others for your lack of good fortune.

Tip number five: When the happiness odds seem particularly stacked against you, make the conscious decision to be happy anyway. Make the best of whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Remind yourself that even winning the lottery would not endow you with happiness for more than a short period of time. You have great power in choosing happiness now, in any situation, if you’re willing to cultivate the characteristics that are conducive to happiness.

In summary, use these five tips to discover greater happiness: First, focus on building your character and happiness will follow naturally. Second, allow adversity to refine your character by revealing your flaws and providing invaluable experience. Third, uncover joy in the common, everyday moments of life. Fourth, find greater happiness by avoiding blame and self-pity. And fifth, practice making the conscious decision to be happy, under any circumstances.

Podcast 5: Justice

Find the courage and wisdom to make the world a better place. While the universe may indeed be on the side of justice, Dr. Martin Luther King warned us about the danger of passively accepting the illusion that a “new age will roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” We all share responsibility for promoting justice and relieving suffering. After a brief critique of Aristotle’s views on justice, this podcast explores how we can overcome moral blind spots through a commitment to love, compassion, and a shared quest for justice and fairness.

Podcast 4: Self-Mastery

Discover the inherent pleasure of disciplined habits. According to Aristotle, self-mastery extends beyond the arduous task of exerting our willpower to resist temptation. It’s a refined capacity to enjoy the wholesome pleasures of life without a constant struggle against intemperate desire. This podcast uses social science to consider how we can live the good life with greater ease and spontaneity.

Podcast 3: Courage

Be prepared for your own Rosa Parks moment. Aristotle describes courage as the golden mean with regard to feelings of fear and confidence. While most of us recognize the need for cultivating this virtue, we fail to recognize that life presents us with more opportunities to display true courage than we’re willing or prepared to embrace. After gleaning insights from Aristotle and from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, this podcast uses recent social scientific studies to describe the meaning of courage in the 21st century.

Podcast 2: Practical Wisdom

Channel your inner Gandalf. We learn from Aristotle that practical wisdom is the glue that holds a noble character together. It’s the “executive virtue” that relies on keen moral perception to see what a particular situation calls for. Practical wisdom maintains harmony between the moral virtues such as courage, self-mastery, and justice. This podcast turns to social science, history, and literature to show how the “wisdom of wizards” can sort out the messiness of real life.

Podcast 1: Happiness and Character

Aristotle

Make a small investment in your personal character development. Social science reaffirms Aristotle’s claim that by far the most important factor in determining a person’s happiness is a noble and virtuous character. After exploring Aristotle’s insights into happiness, this podcast samples some of the most recent research in the field of happiness studies. The final segment introduces Dr. Miller and explains how the first four “character cornerstone” podcasts will be organized.

Humility: Authentic Virtue or Personal Weakness?

I’ve spent the past few months researching and writing about practical wisdom, courage, self-mastery, and justice, which are described in classical ethics as the cardinal virtues. I released a podcast series on these four virtues and published an e-book entitled The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.

In my first Character Cure blog post, I’d like to begin exploring some of the other virtues required for human flourishing. Let’s start with humility.

ConfuciusIn teaching his disciples to avoid boasting, Confucius cites the example of a great warrior who had recently performed an act of valor. He was the last man to flee on horseback after his fellow soldiers had been trounced in battle. As he returned late to camp, he immediately deflected attention from his courageous acts with the excuse that his horse was slow.

The point of this anecdote is clear: modesty or humility is a distinguishing feature of noble men. Confucian humility is also a basic duty called for in the presence of your parents and the elderly. And humility is built into the Confucian definition of knowledge. While the wise are confident regarding what they do know, their quest for knowledge makes them keenly aware when they do not know something.

As a religious virtue, humility includes a profound sense of your dependence upon God. It means acknowledging the relatively meager extent of human knowledge and power. People of faith humbly turn to God for the strength and inspiration they currently lack.

Those who claim Jesus Christ as their exemplar have a particular duty to cultivate humility. In their quest to become like their Master, Christians cannot ignore the height of His self-sacrifice, submissiveness, and ultimate humiliation on the cross. Jesus’ triumph over sin and death was made possible by His self-emptying sacrifice.

John Calvin preached the doctrine of predestination largely as an antidote to pride. In Calvinist theology, good works do not factor into God’s unconditional appointment of the elect unto glory. The idea that you are elected through God’s mysterious and unmerited grace induces true humility, an essential requirement for living in God’s presence.

In cultivating the virtue of humility, we cannot ignore the legitimate critique offered by Nietzsche and other modern philosophers. When promoted by those in power, humility can be a tool to subjugate others. Along with virtues such as kindness and compassion, humility is for Nietzsche one of the central features of a “slave morality.”

AristotleAs a contrast to both Confucianism and traditional Christianity, Aristotle’s man of complete virtue wholeheartedly claims well-deserved honor and praise. His magnanimous nature is always truthful. According to Aristotle, high-mindedness rather than humility is the crown of the virtues.

On the surface, the contrast between Aristotelian pride and Christian/Confucian humility is unmistakable. However, if we look deeper, we see a significant convergence between these moral philosophies.

Starting with Jesus Christ as the embodiment of divine virtue, we can recognize that the humility of Christ emanated from his moral perfection.

In a similar way, both Confucius and Aristotle presume the rare achievement of complete human virtue as they discuss humility and high-mindedness. With regard to the vast majority of people, Aristotle speaks against unjustified arrogance just as much as Confucius.

So what is the proper place of humility within flawed human beings?

Perhaps Aristotle and Confucius are right. The question of whether a situation calls for humility or pride might only make sense when it comes to certain narrow areas of our lives where we have risen above mediocrity. If I have mastered a certain art or achieved a specific virtue, I can then decide whether to follow the Confucian and Christian path of humility or the Greek path of magnanimity and high-mindedness. Where I have not achieved excellence, the only question is how hard I am willing to work to achieve it.

Alexander Dumas’s morally flawed Count of Monte Cristo observes, “I maintain my pride before men, but abandon it before God, who drew me out of nothingness to make me what I am.” Such a sentiment has a persuasive appeal in today’s ultra-competitive society. Even though I fully recognize ways in which I am inferior to other people, why should I defer to them or diminish myself in their presence? Measuring my personal weaknesses against other people’s strengths is usually unhelpful.

So keeping your head held high might make sense as a default posture. But if you have definitively achieved some aspect of virtue, a call for humility can offer a helpful warning against arrogance and self-worship.

In the end, we are still faced with a final dilemma. How can we cultivate true humility while rejecting its self-serving forms? The appearance of humility is immeasurably easier to achieve than the authentic virtue that rises naturally from a foundation of moral excellence.

C.S. Lewis may have the best answer: “If you meet a really humble man…probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him….He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”