Friday, February 20, 2009

Late efforts

I am trying as hard as I can at this latter point in my life to be a decent human being. It is not so easy as it sounds; the proof of which is that most people never quite manage it in their lifetimes. Further, one must have an understanding of what constitutes such decency, and what behaviors may foster it.

A professor of mine once said that the definition of a gentleman is one who does not to do harm - if he can avoid it. I have since found that to be true. The determination not to inflict pain that can be spared is the essence, I think, of being a good person, and this is what I am focusing on as I enter the final stage of my life.

I really do believe that this effort is essential to the condition and, perhaps, to the survival of my soul. Nonetheless, I found myself reflecting today on the following proposition: The lesson of birth is that life hurts; the lesson of death is that life has no meaning; and so, there is nothing but pain, relieved by an occasional imagined joy. How, then, does one avoid doing harm to others?

I think, operationally, it begins with narrowing the scope of one's activities, of speaking less and reflecting more, of cutting back on one's relations with others, and of being attentive, indeed, of being scrupulous, in how one comports oneself in those relations that are closest to one's life. Every encounter with another must be seen as a testing of one's fitness to be called a decent human being. Every action, every expression, must be weighed and measured in that light. "Is what I am doing now, at this moment, contributing to the life and health of my spirit? And is it contributing to the life and health of the spirit of others?" That is the question to be asked; that is the way to become a better person.

This is not easy at all. In fact, it requires as much effort and conscious attention as it does to fly an airplane for the first time, or to walk a high-wire. And yet, I find that very few people, caught up in the busy-ness of life, devote such effort to the care of their souls. Tolstoy said: Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. While I disagree that everyone does think of changing the world (in fact, relatively few people do, most lacking even that saving grace), the latter part of the statement is true.

And so I am trying as hard as I can to undo some of the damage I have done in my life, to prevent doing more such damage, and to devote the energies that I have left to those relationships and activities that I judge to be most important to the wellbeing of my spirit and that of others. And this, in turn, is, I think, the beginning of wisdom. For wisdom, which comes only with age and experience, is the ability to see that which is of true importance, to gain such perspective, and to adjust one's behavior accordingly.

Thus, it seems to me now, to be wise is to be good, or at least, to have the prospect of becoming better.