The Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius said,
“Nowhere can a person find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.”
Now, I like the idea of having my own private, personal retreat—even though I’m often too busy or too distracted to go for a visit. But what is “soul” anyway?
A group was asked what words or images they associated with the word “soul” and they suggested words like: inner, peace, tranquility, garden, sunrise, wisdom, joy, innocence, honesty, timeless, etc.
That’s helpful. We can think of “soul” as simply a handle for that deep inner part of ourselves, maybe the better, higher part of ourselves. In Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature.”
But I think we still wonder…how do we access that deep inner part of ourselves in a way that is relevant, helpful, and truly enriching to everyday life with all of its noise and busyness? What would that look like?
Here’s an idea I like, and it comes from 2700 years ago—from the man who had the greatest influence on Chinese thought and culture for 2,000 years: Confucius.
Confucius suggested the image of the ideal host or hostess as a kind of paradigm for daily life.
He said we are all hosts or hostesses in life: we welcome people, problems and experiences into our presence every day. He taught his students to move through their days as an ideal hostess moves through a party:
The ideal hostess moves through the room alert, attentive, thoughtful. Because she is in touch with her inner self, she flows out to each person and is fully present with each one she meets. The great and the small get her equal attention and respect. Because she is at ease, she puts each one at ease. She deals with any problems that arise calmly and wisely, plans thoughtfully to make sure needs are met, and spreads genuine joy wherever she goes. She is the calm, tranquil eye at the center of the swirling storm of activity. Because she forgets about herself and forgets about trying to impress others, she makes the greatest impression of all. She doesn’t have to be the center of attention; indeed, she is the one who is always paying attention to others, and to the flow of life itself.
Not a bad image for everyday life, is it?
It’s an image of the soul in action.
What is the one human quality you possess that counts most? The poet Robert Frost believed it’s courage. He put it like this:
“Courage is the human virtue that counts most—courage to act on limited knowledge and insufficient evidence. That’s all any of us have.”
Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear or indecision. But it does mean we find a way to get an upper hand on fear.
Courage can’t wait until we have all the answers or until the circumstances are ideal or until we know how things are going to come out.
I like the way William James talked about this. We are in life, he said, like a football player on the sidelines. Imagine a football player who said, “I’m going to wait until I see which team is going to win before I get into the game. Then I’ll play for the winning team.”
Or imagine a football player who said, “I’m going to wait until the ideal moment before I jump into the game.”
Life is now. Life matters. We can either spend our life on the sidelines or we can decide what we want to live for and fight for and get in the game.
And no matter how confusing or discouraging or frustrating life may become, we always know there are some things worth living for and fighting for.
For example, you’ll never be wrong to fight for human beings, not against them.
You’ll never be wrong to put your whole heart, soul and mind into whatever you’re doing today.
You’ll never be wrong to love the people you love with no conditions or expectations.
You’ll never be wrong to reach for joy each day.
It’s not easy. It takes courage to fight for these things. We have to reach down deep sometimes.
How deep? Well, the word “courage” comes from the French word for “heart.”
To live with courage is to live with heart.
“I’m tired of trying to swim upstream. I think I’ll just go with the flow and see where the current takes me.”
There are times, of course, when that’s good advice. There are plenty of battles that are just not worth fighting.
But there are also times “going with the flow” is more like giving up or giving in to the drag of inertia.
As a bumper sticker said: “Only dead fish float downstream!”
I think we all recognize that there are a few things—the things that matter most to us—that are worth fighting for. Things that call on us to use our inner strength, our upstream muscles
The challenge of not compromising ourselves or our values.
The challenge of not compromising our commitment to the people we love.
The challenge of trying to do no harm in the world.
The challenge to keep growing as a person…all the way to the last day.
The challenge to be fully alive and present today.
The challenge of giving ourselves to others for their good with no expectations.
In other words, it’s about overcoming the drag of inertia with the fire of commitment. Which brings us to today’s quotation from Abraham Heschel:
“Living is an ongoing encounter, a fighting to the end, in which thought of surrender is inconceivable. Fight against boredom, inertia. To live with commitment means to face opposition, to dare, to defy. A lack of such commitment means evading the challenge, drifting with the current.”
Easy? No. But it beats flopping around in the shallows or floating downstream, belly up.
When the weather turns very cold we usually have the good sense to bundle up before we go out.
But when one of life’s “cold spells” hits we sometimes find ourselves feeling unprotected, even shocked.
Someone lets us down…(or we let someone down)…stress builds up at work…we get hurt…we get some bad medical news…failure strikes…or the headlines all seem bad…and it can feel like we’ve taken the Polar Bear Plunge!
Now some people like the Polar Bear Plunge but I have to confess, I’m not one of them. I’m looking for comfort, for warmth, for protection.
Leonardo da Vinci saw his share of “cold spells” in life, and he believed the best protection is patience.
“Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.”
Patience is “the will or ability to wait and endure without complaint…[or] steadiness, endurance, perseverance in the performance of a task.”
It’s a quiet word, but a strong, powerful word.
The word “patience” has the same root as the word “passion.” It is a kind of passion in slow motion…a kind of cool, quiet passion…a passion that puts time on your side…passion that steps back and looks at the big picture…passion that doesn’t overreact but tries to understand…a passion that is willing to keep looking and working for the best even in life’s cold weather.
With the world being the way it is—and with humans being, well, human—maybe we should all bundle up and be a little more patient with each other.
“In the midst of winter, I found that there was within me an invincible summer.”
When we patiently work for the best, it’s like having “an invincible summer inside” even in the midst of winter.
Some say that most New Year’s resolutions don’t last past January.
So this year, how about a New Year’s realization.
Here’s one from author Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“How embarrassing for man to be the greatest miracle on earth and not to understand it.”
Yes, it’s true. There was a time in your life when you had no job, no money, few social skills…and yet everyone who knew you agreed that you were miraculous.
You were six months old.
And it’s a scientific fact that you, being a human being, are still fully as miraculous as the Grand Canyon, the Aurora Borealis, or the full moon.
The question is what to do with that fact…beyond stitching it onto a pillow.
It’s not as though you can waltz into the boss’s office and ask for a substantial raise based on your miraculousness. Or use this as a pick-up line in a bar.
The word “miracle” comes from a root word that means “that which signifies a smile.”
So here’s a suggestion for starting the New Year.
Take a few quiet moments to just stand and look at that one-of-a-kind miracle in the mirror, that human being that Carl Sandburg called, “Man, the little two-legged joker.” (Or woman.)
Look long enough to turn loose of all those thoughts buzzing around in your brain, thoughts about height, weight, looks, past, future, whatever.
Look long enough to just see. Really see.
Yep, it’s not like you’ll want to go telling everyone, but that ornery old thing in the mirror? Still a miracle.