The ocean of vice

The journey of self-improvement is a lonely one in many ways. For one thing, obviously, you must go yourself; nobody else can do it for you. Nobody can even guide you all the way; for if they could do that, it would mean that this person knows the route all the way, has been there already — and how can that be if it's to be your itinerary, not theirs? There will necessarily be at least some segment that is for you alone to cover. (It doesn't have to be the final segment, as it is customary in adventure films and fantasy novels; it might well be the very first steps that you have to walk alone, picking up support only later as you go. The forms are diverse.) For another, whenever you make changes in your life, you will inevitably be deserted by some 'friends' who stand to lose from those changes, just as you might gain others who are willing to give their support. And finally, it is a lonely trip because it takes you through unwalkable terrain. Or rather, to choose a more apt metaphor: it leads across an ocean of faults and weaknesses, interests and opinions that run in all sorts of directions (and often enough no direction at all), and above all, your own tendencies and habits that have been with you for ages and look deeply familiar, but ultimately came from the same source. Your internal thought circulation is infused with materials from the very seas you want to get over; they're both continuous with each other.

There is, in short, in the world in which we live a massiveness of vice and a comparative rarity of excellence. Just like 'fate', 'vice' is a very old label. In the sense in which I'm using it here, vice is not the same as crime (or sin); it's not necessarily a legal or moral matter. You may have to answer only yourself for it; but still it's generally not a good idea: it diverts your attention and dilutes your focus, it saps your strength and takes your energy away, it makes you waste your time on it — in short, it's not good for you. But it's all around you, you'll find it everywhere. The ocean of vice washes around you all the time, and it's a safe bet to suspect to yourself that you have been long and deeply influenced, too — misled by others' example. (Just as those others have been misled by the example of again others, and so on.) Vice doesn't need to take the form of outrageous debauchery; there are subtler forms that might even be largely accepted (or indeed encouraged) and still will make you drift away from your own best interests. Falseness and manipulation will find you wherever you go, weakness is everywhere, foolishness has many forms.

Where does it all come from? In general, it's much easier not to be on a journey of self-improvement than to be on one. Many people don't even realize that there is a path to go for them in their lives; some don't understand that they must choose it themselves rather than letting others dictate where it runs; and even though different people's paths can be similar to each other, only a very small number know that an individually chosen path cannot be found by emulating another one, or by following a recipe. (The specifics of your route can only be found by using your imagination to create a goal and vision, and by reflecting upon what reality confronts you with.)

Add to this ignorance and unawareness that many are deceived by vice's apparent desirability, its overt attractiveness. The insidious thing is that there is a short-term reward for all kinds of weaknesses and faults; more often than not, people then boast about their short-term gains and hide where they came from (and what their costs were), thus creating that false impression of desirability in the eyes of others, and so feeding the ocean. Moreover, once you've given in to some weakness, the next time it becomes even more alluring, and correspondingly it gets harder to resist. (There is a reason why people speak of 'vicious' circles and spirals.) All waters run downstream, again towards the ocean. And finally, there is also always the secret hope that somehow the best way of living your life will turn out to be the one that maximizes pleasure, and minimizes pains and efforts. (Perhaps the addendum is made, even more secretly, that the effort of seeking out your path and not getting adrift on the ocean might belong with those pains to be minimized. Nobody would say that out loud, however.)

Yet precisely this vastness and formlessness, which makes it apparently so difficult to deal with the ocean, is what actually renders it possible for you to navigate it successfully. Its currents will drive you in one direction sometimes and in another at some other time. But as long as you keep a course directed at some goal, you will always eventually make some progress. That's because the pulls of the ocean are inconsistent, whereas you, having a goal and a broad route towards it in view, will push consistently. And what applies to individual goals applies equally to your life as a whole: once you've started working towards a coherent world view, the winds can blow you off your path only temporarily, and you'll be able to get back on it soon.

If something is stable at all, and capable of giving shape to things, then it is you. For as long as you are around as a person (and that's the only stretch of time that really counts), it will always be up to you how you live your life and what kind of person you are. True, in a given situation you may fall short of the way you should act — there's always the possibility of failure. 'Up to you' here doesn't mean that you are immune to failure just because it's you who is acting. But with any given kind of failure there is always really only two kinds of factors: external circumstance, and your own skill. External circumstance is subject to chance and all kinds of influence. It isn't stable, and in the long run, things will be skewed to your advantage, given that you work on the other factor. So there will always be external influence, but it will be quantitatively less and random, while what you do, your own skill and sense of direction, can be worked on and steadily improved. Over time, these latter will always prevail over the former. It just takes that: time and consistent dedication on your part. That's what 'up to you' really means.

The key here is that you make your own skill into something different, something that is not subject to chance and all kinds of influence. For your own skill, in contrast to external circumstance, can be changed, so that it is precisely not unstable like that. Of course, that applies to bad traits just as well as to good traits. Weakness of character doesn't cease just by itself; on the contrary: it will continue and increase if it's not being addressed. Then it will just add to the ocean. On the other hand, once you have achieved good quality of character, you won't simply lose that from a whim of fate: it's always up to you to keep it. Fate may blow some circumstances your way that make it more difficult to maintain, but whether you maintain it or not will still be up to you. (There is no such thing as losing your composure by accident. If you lose your composure, that's always your responsibility.)

Just keep in mind that the ocean will always be there. There's no way of keeping above the water line without taking action: you have to expend energy and keep moving. As long as you do so and don't get distracted by its winds and waves (not to speak of being carried away), you'll make progress on your journey. The ocean isn't there to stop you; it gives you an exercise ground for your skills in managing externals, and testing materials for examining your skills in self-direction; it's is here to be crossed in order to reach your goals of self-improvement. Take care.

Fate and resistance

When we go traveling, we naturally suppose that there will be dust and dirt, detours and delays, and many other inconveniences on our way to the destination. Sometimes we may be lucky and have comparatively few of these troubles; sometimes we get the full broadside. Likewise, in living our lives, we may run into some discomforting (even distressing) events; at other times we'll be lucky and run along smoothly for a while, with none or only few of them showing up. That's the way it is, and there is not much of a chance to change or control it. And arguably, the more interesting and out of the usual a trip is, the higher is the probability of inconvenience; the more worthwhile your goals in life are, the higher runs the risk of some hardship or sacrifice required from you. And yet many people complain endlessly about those nasty little things that happen to them along their path.

In the background of such complaints is the secret hope that somehow you can have it both: go on that trip and be spared the inconveniences; live your life and remain untroubled by all kinds of adverse winds. This attitude is either unrealistic or straightforwardly wimpy (or both). It won't help you reach any worthwhile goal, for if a goal is worthwhile, chances are that obstacles are there to be overcome; more importantly, such an attitude communicates back to yourself that you are a plaything of circumstances and the will of other people, not a force of your own; furthermore, it also displays a certain questionable order of priorities: first comes your convenience (that is, avoidance of pain, as far as possible, and gaining of pleasure), then whatever distance you might accomplish on your chosen path.

Thus a first step is to give up the secret hope that you'll be spared the inconveniences along the way. You won't: they will happen to you. Again, some of them can be controlled, some of them can be influenced; but many are out of reach. There will always be some share of the favorable kind and some share of the unfavorable kind — that's a fact of life, it simply is fate (if you want to give it a label). That secret hope we've been talking about is in effect the hope that fate is rather like another person, whom you can argue with, or negotiate. But it's not. Fate (as I use that label) is simply the way things are. (We're not talking about how things are in a given situation: that is something with many causes. What we're talking about is that in many given situations, things will be unfavorable, and often enough they will be outside your ability to change them.) So don't let your responses be governed by the idea: "It might (should) have been different, this could all have happened without that nasty extra." Simply take the little nasty extra into account, adjust your course, and move on. The moment you get emotional about something that merely happens, you're going down the wrong path.

You can go a further step and take a stance of acceptance. Let's say you're slightly late and just missed the train; now you are annoyed and tell yourself that you have to wait for the next one. That's an inconvenience, maybe even mild trouble (depending on how important it was that you reached your destination in time). But be careful what attitude you have towards what happens now: you're waiting for the next train. Is it really because you 'have to'? You might call a taxi, or even cancel your trip. If you don't, if you wait, that's a choice — the best choice under the circumstances. It's up to you here what to focus on: what has just happened to you, or what you choose to do in the changed situation. (This doesn't mean that 'everything is relative', or that there is nothing 'but only thought constructs'; it just means that where your own actions are concerned, you always have choices, even though you may not always be aware of them.) Once you look at your choices and have satisfied yourself that you've chosen well, it's easy to take a stance of acceptance towards fate. So in this example, what really counts is that you are choosing to wait for the next train. And what holds for everyday events like this one, missing a train, holds equally for those things with deeper impact: misfortunes, losses, even that which is the final thing for every living being — namely, our own death. You won't typically choose them; but you can accept them, and then you're free to choose your own response. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.