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041 - On Looking Within - Moral Letters for Modern Times

For us to know the true worth of something, we must look beyond the packaging. And this takes time.
Forest path in Swiss alps - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

You are making a sound investment, one which will pay dividends, if you do as you describe in your letters, in regularly training your mind. There are many before you who will stand as gatekeepers, and not all of them are benevolent: from the university administrators who say you cannot be educated without their degree, to the licensing bodies who claim you cannot run your business without their certification, to the self-help authors who say you cannot be happy without buying their book. When it comes to achieving a well-ordered mind, none of these are required. They are in fact obstacles to progress, but only for those who listen to them. All you need to advance is within.

Think of the gardener quietly tilling the soil, patiently weeding, and enjoying the feel of the sun on her face as she watches her seedlings sprout and grow. It was no diploma or license that enabled this wholesome and satisfying work. The poet putting pen to paper is tapping into a spring that flows purest when it is free of external pollutions. The self-help book might as well be called the self-doubt book for the all the good it will do someone who is trying to master their thoughts and emotions.

We are easily fooled by outward appearances because we are encouraged to be productive. “What do you mean?” you say, “Is it not correct to be about our business in an efficient way? What harm is there in productivity?” I will tell you, Deuteros, where the harm lies. When you have set your goals around productivity, you are enabling yourself to do more. The more you can do, the more you agree to do, and the more productive you become. Except in your headlong rush, you have learned that you must make quick decisions, and hence you look no further than the surface of things.

“This one has many followers, and is popular on the talk shows. I will listen to him because he must have something important to say. That one has accumulated great wealth, and has three companies. I will work with her because she must be a brilliant businessperson. This book is a New York Times bestseller. I will read it because it must contain important truths.” Can you ever be wrong in following the masses? Going along with the crowd brings you certainty, yes, but it is comfort only that you will not be alone in your beliefs, not that they are necessarily true.

For does not the crowd celebrate a person for their designer clothes, their sports car, and their expensive watch? When this tells you almost nothing about the person inside those clothes and that car, except that they have put faith in flashy displays. A full head of elegantly coiffed hair is no guarantee of intelligence within. A sharply dressed man may be dull as a rock when it comes to what they understand of the world.

For us to know the true worth of something, we must look beyond the packaging. And this takes time. Better that you sit with a single book and work your way through its pages, than to skim a hundred dust jackets and think you have gained wisdom from primary colors and blurbs.

Better that you engage in deep conversation, where you actively listen to your companion, before you decide whether there is substance to their words. And when you are building your own substance, do not look to the surface but look within. You are most productive when you attempt the least, but do so thoroughly and completely.

Those who would judge you by your appearance are blind to your true value. The thing we should prize above all is invisible to a superficial inspection. What is that, you ask? It is a well-ordered mind, working in harmony with circumstances and nature to bring about reason. A person who can bring reason to bear in every situation is not led astray by emotions or bribery or threat of harm. They live content, untroubled by everything that plagues their fellow man.

Be well.

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