020 - On Consistency - Moral Letters for Modern Times
To be healthy, to be of sound mind and body, and to be facing a voluntary decision to call a halt to your current pursuits. I am happy for you, and as much for myself, if I have helped you arrive at this point of self-reflection. I caution you, my dear Deuteros, that you cannot be a hypocrite. It is not enough to think good thoughts, you must transform thoughts into deeds. The lessons of philosophy are hard won, and their proof is in the pudding. Though you think your thoughts pure, if your actions are compromised, your lessons will have availed you little.
Consider the coach who exhorts the team: do as I say, not as I do. From what authority does he speak, and why should we listen? Consider the political party that uses every leverage and maneuver when it has the reins of power, but bitterly decries their use by the other party when the electoral winds have shifted. Why do we give such hypocrites a moment’s consideration?
Knowing the nature of humankind, and how easily the weak can become the powerful, the drafters of the U.S. Constitution created many checks and balances on the unfettered exercises of power by a bare majority. We now see the guardrails recklessly dismantled in the raw pursuit of power. None of our politicians doing the dirty work ask themselves why it was these limits were put in place, and what furies we unleash by their removal. We could forgive them their folly, except that we are all fellow passengers in the bus they are steering ever closer towards the cliff’s edge.
“Are you telling me to be a saint,” you ask? “Am I never to place a wrong foot or risk being seen as a false student?” I do not require that you be without fault, although indeed some are able to match every thought and deed. But nor can you be reckless. Credibility is built upon consistency. Each time you say one thing and do another, you are a hypocrite. How many times can you wear this cloak if you expect others not to assume it is your habitual dress? And particularly if you seek to hold others accountable for their sins while you sell yourself indulgences, don’t be surprised if the bedrock of your beliefs is eroded.
Though all around you changes, you shall be consistent. Though all around you stays the same, if it goes against the proper wisdom you have learned, you shall be consistent. Fads and trends come and go like wildfires burning through a dry landscape. They burn fiercely, whipped by great winds, threatening all whom fate has put in their path. But you know that the flames of fads burn out as quickly as they arise, with the difference being these flames burn only those who grasp them willingly. For many years it was business suits, suddenly khakis appeared, then came Patagonia vests, and now hoodies slouch into the boardroom. Pity the poor necktie, whose constricting embrace will grace no more necks. To chase fads is to lose consistency. Your closets will not groan with the weight of wardrobes you do not wear, for you will remember that your simple, durable clothing is functional, not ornamental.
You know I am fond of the Buddha, who has managed to capture great wisdom in few words. I borrow today from his store, in the hopes of paying forward the debt:
Even as a great rock is not shaken by the wind, the wise man is not shaken by praise or by blame.
The way to identify a wise person is to observe the one who maintains consistency in the face of passions all around them. What meaning does the praise of the masses bring? What lesson do you learn from the criticism of the ignorant? You are as well-served to assume that the croak of the crow is encouragement for your good deeds as you are to fear a seagull’s droppings landing on your back are a warning. What I am saying is this: Do not be tempted by sweet praise or pained by bitter criticism from anyone whose opinion and character you do not know and trust.
And as is my wont of late, I give you an additional gift to reinforce the notion I am trying to tease out:
It is an invincible greatness of mind not to be elevated or dejected with good or ill fortune. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it be - without wishing for what he has not.
You will recognize I dip once more into the deep well that is Seneca.
If you once learn to be happy with what you have and, as important, not sad about what you don’t have, you will have arrived at a state of unassailable strength. And once arriving at this peak, you will see that any step in another direction is inevitably a step downwards, making it easy to maintain your resolve.