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027 - On Things Of Lasting Value - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Not all appreciate that hard work and sacrifice are not just the price for rewards, but a necessary precondition for valuing them.
Tall, rusty water tower - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

“Not another sermon,” you say. “I have heard you preach to others, but do you practice your own lessons? Are you so advanced that you have endless time to pass on your wisdom to those less learned?” I do not pretend to point out the mote in my brother’s eye while ignoring the beam in my own. Consider that I am trying to describe a landscape that I see but dimly, and that by comparing notes with my fellow observers, we each gain a sharper view of its contours. You are thus my sounding board for good sense. Though I may be just talking to myself, putting my thoughts into words still helps me understand the message.

I tell you one lesson that I must practice and practice, and hence I preach it to myself as often as to others: I shall seek an end to my wants, before I come to my own end. As often as I banish wants, so they sprout anew like perennials each spring. “What harm,” I muse, “in this small indulgence? I can afford it, and truly there may be no consequence for my weakness of the moment.” But what a tiny bounty this small pleasure buys, when compared to the erosion of my foundation of self-possession and well-ordered thought! What an unfair trade to grab onto a momentary enjoyment and let go of long-term contentment.

For though the pleasure is fleeting, the memory of it remains. And the memory is not of the enjoyment but of my lapse, or as the saying goes: act in haste, repent at leisure. With each slip, my footing grows less stable, until I am scarcely able to stand without support. Contrast this with the memory of virtuous decisions resulting from clear-thinking. Rather than death by a thousand cuts, each of these decisions can be safely savored in leisure. They represent a fortification of the soul and not an assault. Standing firm is the only way to continue to stand firmly, and thus the only path to lasting value is to be true to your values.

There are more obstacles in our path than aids, my dear Deuteros, even though it appears that the opposite is true. Consider: we live in an age when virtually all knowledge is available at our fingertips, courtesy of Google. The instant a thought or question arises in your mind, you can slake your thirst with a search. How many drink deeply enough to fully quench desire, instead of sipping at the sources of wisdom? Though they have been handed the keys to all the libraries of the world, they cannot unlock wisdom.

There have never been more well-informed idiots who know all of the facts and none of their implications. I put it down to instant gratification. Not only do we feel entitled to satisfy our every want, but what we think we deserve we want right now. The worst thing you can do with a child is to satisfy their every want, for then they never learn the difference between wants and needs. Are we to be spoiled children into advanced age?

Not all appreciate that hard work and sacrifice are not just the price for rewards, but a necessary precondition for valuing them. If I give you something for free, and you have invested no effort in obtaining it, you will value it as highly as any other common thing you can pick up off the ground. Because free and easy are today within short reach, few grasp past them to the costly and the challenging. But if we wish to ensure our safe passage, the hard way is where our path lies. The longer we toil upwards, the greater will be our reward. The joy that comes from mastering your thoughts is not only the greatest possession, it is the one that cannot be taken from you by another.

I pay now my debt and take my leave:

The greatest wealth is to live content with little, for there is never want where the mind is satisfied.

This comes courtesy of Lucretius, and you marvel at the many routes by which I return to this point. That is because it is a road you must travel down before you are safe to venture further on. It is also the road to which all others eventually return. I would have you hear this lesson until it becomes second nature, and you are a safe navigator for yourself and others.

Be well.

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