“…Man is Either a King or a Slave…”

As we draw open the blinds on each brand new year, our inboxes, mailboxes, and trips to the store are assaulted by self-help media. Didn’t get that job you wanted? Here’s how! Didn’t make as much money as you hoped? Here’s how! Want to improve your sex life? Your demeanor among friends? Your outlook on life?

It seems that with each new year, we feel increasingly qualified to wax from on high about the ultimate aims in life and the best (or only) methods to achieve them. Thanks to Brett McKay, Head Honcho at the Art of Manliness, I ran into a common sense turn-of-the-year approach. Where most self-help sources would start by accepting you weren’t at fault for achieving your goals, Mr. McKay acknowledges that the real reason for achieving anything less than what you intended comes down to one thing and one thing alone: discipline. I found his thoughts, captured in “The Secret to Becoming a Better Man in 2010,” to be refreshing.

What’s more, I ran into a passage (and an author) which I will never forget. As a corollary to his post, Mr. McKay directed readers to William George Jordan’s Self-Control, Its Kingship and Majesty, published in 1905. For your benefit, I include the most salient passage here:

“When a man fails in life he usually says, ” I am as God made me.” When he succeeds he proudly proclaims himself a ” self-made man.” Man is placed into this world not as a finality,— but as a possibility. Man’s greatest enemy is,—himself. Man in his weakness is the creature of circumstances; man in his strength is the creator of circumstances. Whether he be victim or victor depends largely on himself.

Man is never truly great merely for what he is, but ever for what he may become. Until man be truly filled with the knowledge of the majesty of his possibility, until there come to him the glow of realization of his privilege to live the life committed to him, as an individual life for which he is individually responsible, he is merely groping through the years…

With this broadening, stimulating view of life, he sees how he may attain his kingship through self-control. And the self-control that is seen in the most spectacular instances in history, and in the simplest phases of daily life, is precisely the same in kind and in quality, differing only in degree. This control man can attain, if he only will; it is but a matter of paying the price.

The power of self-control is one of the great qualities that differentiates man from the lower animals. He is the only animal capable of a moral struggle or a moral conquest.

Every step in the progress of the world has been a new “control.” It has been escaping from the tyranny of a fact, to the understanding and mastery of that fact. For ages man looked in terror at the lightning flash; to-day he has begun to understand it as electricity, a force he has mastered and made his slave. The million phases of electrical invention are but manifestations of our control over a great force. But the greatest of all “control ” is self-control.

At each moment of man’s life he is either a King or a slave. As he surrenders to a wrong appetite, to any human weakness; as he falls prostrate in hopeless subjection to any condition, to any environment, to any failure, he is a slave. As he day by day crushes out human weakness, masters opposing elements within him, and day by day re-creates a new self from the sin and folly of his past,—then he is a King. He is a King ruling with wisdom over himself. Alexander conquered the whole world except,— Alexander. Emperor of the earth, he was the servile slave of his own passions.

We look with envy upon the possessions of others and wish they were our own. Sometimes we feel this in a vague, dreamy way with no thought of real attainment, as when we wish we had Queen Victoria’s crown, or Emperor William’s self-satisfaction. Sometimes, however, we grow bitter, storm at the wrong distribution of the good things of life, and then relapse into a hopeless fatalistic acceptance of our condition.

We envy the success of others, when we should emulate the process by which that success came. We see the splendid physical development of Sandow, yet we forget that as a babe and child he was so weak there was little hope that his life might be spared…

We shut our eyes to the thousands of instances of the world’s successes,— mental, moral, physical, financial or spiritual,—wherein the great final success came from a beginning far weaker and poorer than our own.

Any man may attain self-control if he only will. He must not expect to gain it save by long continued payment of price, in small progressive expenditures of energy. Nature is a thorough believer in the installment plan in her relations with the individual. No man is so poor that he cannot begin to pay for what he wants, and every small, individual payment that he makes, Nature stores and accumulates for him as a reserve fund in his hour of need.

The patience man expends in bearing the little trials of his daily life Nature stores for him as a wondrous reserve in a crisis of life. With Nature, the mental, the physical or the moral energy he expends daily in right doing is all stored for him and transmuted into strength. Nature never accepts a cash payment in full for anything,—this would be an injustice to the poor and to the weak.

It is only the progressive installment plan Nature recognizes. No man can make a habit in a moment or break it in a moment. It is a matter of development, of growth. But at any moment man may begin to make or begin to break any habit. This view of the growth of character should be a mighty stimulus to the man who sincerely desires and determines to live nearer to the limit of his possibilities.

Self-control may be developed in precisely the same manner as we tone up a weak muscle,—by little exercises day by day. Let us each day do, as mere exercises of discipline in moral gymnastics, a few acts that are disagreeable to us, the doing of which will help us in instant action in our hour of need. The exercises may be very simple—dropping for a time an intensely interesting book at the most thrilling page of the story; jumping out of bed at the first moment of waking; walking home when one is perfectly able to do so, but when the temptation is to take a car; talking to some disagreeable person and trying to make the conversation pleasant. These daily exercises in moral discipline will have a wondrous tonic effect on man’s whole moral nature.

The individual can attain self-control in great things only through self-control in little things. He must study himself to discover what is the weak point in his armor, what is the element within him that ever keeps him from his fullest success. This is the characteristic upon which he should begin his exercise in self-control. Is it selfishness, vanity, cowardice, morbidness, temper, laziness, worry, mind-wandering, lack of purpose?—whatever form human weakness assumes in the masquerade of life he must discover. He must then live each day as if his whole existence were telescoped down to the single day before him. With no useless regret for the past, no useless worry for the future, he should live that day as if it were his only day,— the only day left for him to assert all that is best in him, the only day left for him to conquer all that is worst in him. He should master the weak element within him at each slight manifestation from moment to moment. Each moment then must be a victory for it or for him. Will he be King, or will he be slave?—the answer rests with him.”

Balance of Principle and Pragmatism

“By putting a premium  on listening, not lecturing, and by injecting a corrective dose of pragmatism, an impression has been left that America’s historic support for the spread of democratic values has diminished,” wrote James Rubin in the December 14, 2009 edition of Newsweek. His article, How America’s Commitment to Democratic Values is Waning, sheds light on omissions in contemporary American rhetoric and policy and suggests we consider whether these omissions were accidental slips or signs of a more substantive change.

Rubin confidently intones that “our power and our values cannot be separated. More than any other country on earth, America has been committed to principles in foreign affairs.” But, I’m left unconvinced. I’m not setting out to demonize our government or to gainsay the American ideal; I’m just wondering if, as a nation, we’re drifting closer or farther from our values. Hell, I’d even be satisfied if I could determine we were just staying the course.

This week I saw James Cameron‘s Avatar – twice. I’m a little ashamed by how infatuated I am with the film, despite it being a suspiciously perfect amalgamation of Fern Gully, Dances With Wolves, and The Matrix (but that’s neither here nor there). As I left the theatre, I was working through some of the questions raised in my mind when I suddenly became concerned. The question I stumbled over was: Could the human race would actually be capable of the acts performed in that movie?

At first, this was one of the more insignificant questions inspired in me by Avatar – more a wisp of air than a real, tangible question. Just as I was about to brush away the notion as patently impossible (of course the human race would never commit such desolate, evil acts!) it occurred to me: we have done exactly that. And not just long ago in our distant past, but recently! The Holocaust, apartheid, and a dozen other genocidal campaigns that we too easily forget are poignant, but haunting reminders. I’m not suddenly afraid of an impending racial doom – but I’m forced to wonder: is James Cameron’s vision of us in 2154 possible? Are we growing more enlightened, more dedicated to our values? Or are we growing apart from our values and calling it “realism?”

James Rubin doesn’t seem afraid that we’re on the brink of catastrophe, but you have to admit that when the question of whether or not we’re dedicated to our values even needs to be asked, something is seriously wrong. That, I think, should be our first hint to self-evaluate and get back on the right track.

Burned-out After Reading

Last weekend I went with friends to see Seven Pounds, which critics seem to agree is Will Smith’s latest triumphant disaster. Although the film is most often attacked for what may be perceived as unbearable sentimentality or implausibility, I, for once, was able to take Coleridge’s advice to “suspend all disbelief” and enjoyed the film immensely. In fact, unlike many films, this one haunted me. Over the next couple of days I dwelled on this or that aspect of the film until, finally, I was inspired to re-read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The connection between Smith’s film and Shakespeare’s play seems abundantly clear to me, though I’ve yet to see a review which mentions it (so if you know of one, point it out to me). Of course, where Shakespeare’s Shylock was hell-bent on taking a pound of flesh for wrongs done to him, Smith’s Ben/Tim Thomas is hell-bent on giving away a pound of flesh for wrongs he’s done to others. I’m a Burkeian at heart, so the idea of deeply-rooted guilt resonates with me. The film and play have much more in common, but that’s not what I wanted to write about today. Perhaps that will be another post.

In any case, as I re-read Shakespeare I was taken aback by how prescient and valuable his work remains. I know I should not have been be surprised, but I was – especially with the following monologue, which I felt compelled to highlight:

“So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars;
Who, inward search’d, have livers white as milk;
And these assume but valour’s excrement
To render them redoubted! Look on beauty,
And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight;
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind,
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest. ”

(Merchant of Venice, 3.2.73)

On a personal note, it struck me as hugely ironic that directly after finishing the play I picked up my notes from the International Leadership Conference in LA a couple of weeks ago and found this quip by Jean Lipman-Blumen: “We concentrate so much on charisma…I’ve had it up to here with charisma. I think that people will sometimes polish and burnish their charisma and will fail to work on character.”

I’m not the only one who sees the echo of Shakespeare in that, am I?

Mobile (banking+politics+connecing)=?

You may have noticed a good deal of hullabaloo in the press about the advent of Mobile Banking: the new technology enabling consumers to control their financial assets from their mobile phone (texting to transfer funds, schedule a payment, check balances, et cetera).

As exciting as that is, banking is not the only activity people engage in on-the-go. ABI research reports that 46% of those who use social networks have also accessed a social network through their mobile phone (70% of those had visited MySpace  and 67% had visited Facebook). Interestingly, when asked why they had logged in via their mobile, 50% acknowledged checking for comments and messages, while 45% logged in to make status updates – that is, projecting what they were doing or feeling to their online audience. Continue reading “Mobile (banking+politics+connecing)=?”

Wisdom in the unlikeliest of places

Just saw Evan Almighty. Not in much of a mood to comment on it, but I did want to commemorate here one really dazzling quotation by Morgan Freeman’s character (God):

“Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?” – Evan Almighty

It really made me think, I’m somewhat ashamed to say. C’est la comedy.