I put to you last the burden of constant vigilance, of watching your mind lest it become infected with viruses and weaknesses that would sap your reason. I told you that this daily toil cannot to be avoided because the threats to your ordered mind are themselves unceasing and unrelenting. I have more than just bitter news on offer, Deuteros, and today I will give you a message that is sweeter, though it too is about serious things.
Just as people are creatures of habit and we become what we repeatedly do, so your mind becomes more skilled with practice at spotting and blocking the viruses that bombard you. With your daily habit of reflecting upon and reinforcing your reason, you will readily spot traps and dead ends. This is not to say that you become unthinking and take for granted what you have learned, but that the lessons spring more easily to mind and to your defense when needed.
But do not rest on your accomplishments, my dear Deuteros, for you are never further than one step from a fall. Our friend Confucius advises us to
Pursue the study of virtue as though you could never reach your goal, and were afraid of losing the ground already gained,
and surely this is sound advice. For even though you may gain confidence in the subjects of your daily mediations, are you confident you have learned everything that may be of use to you? Let us hear again the voice of Confucius, who made no claim to wisdom for himself, but once more praised the virtue of the student:
In me, knowledge is not innate. I am but one who loves antiquity, and is earnest in the study of it.
I myself try to be an earnest student. Though I am far removed from my formal school days, I am never far from a book or an idea. If passions and desires are missiles and bullets being fired constantly at our vulnerable reason, ideas and beliefs are the shields that protect us. I would rather carry a thousand shields about my person than I should find myself missing the one that could have protected me from a cruel blow! So I suit myself for school as diligently as the parent preparing their child for kindergarten, reflective band about their neck, pack upon their back, and mid-day snack at the ready.
“Look how foolish he is to be marching back to school with the smallest of children,” the ignorant will mock. I should be so lucky to always have such feeble-minded critics, Deuteros. I fully admit to knowing but a fraction of all that I could and all that I would. The criticisms of the empty-headed are more a reflection upon them than upon me. I dismiss them as easily as I do the impatient honking of the commuter at the schoolchildren’s crosswalk who is eager to get to their work cell so they do not need to be confronted with the prison they’ve made of their minds.
Here’s something I’ve realized in my later years that those who are students only in their youth may never learn. The toil seems greater that never varies and is repeated over and over. Sisyphus could have been made to perform any punishment, but Zeus set him to pushing a boulder endlessly up a hill. How like Sisyphus are people in their pursuit of money and objects, always the same distance from their goals no matter how far they have come, doomed to struggle without end and without ever nearing satisfaction.
How different the task laid before the willing lifelong student! We have before us a rich buffet of delicacies whose recipes have been created, experimented upon, and improved across ages. This month we are dining on Chinese food, next month it is European fare that best suits our palates, and later we may enjoy the heat and spice of India. Is it a fusion of tastes you are after? No problem, for every combination is available for the taking.
When you are feeling full, by all means take some time for digestion. Did that last dish not agree with you so much? Put it to the side for now. I wouldn’t discard it, even though it is not to my taste, because I remember two things: it appealed to someone in time and it would be interesting to know why; and even if I do not enjoy the meal the first time I try it, perhaps I will find it to be an acquired taste or that it is improved when consumed with other flavors.
We each try many things in our pursuit of happiness and meaning. The usual burdens and cares we pick up as we age make us heavier and wear us down. By contrast, the meals we consume in knowledge and learning make us lighter the more we eat. Let us therefore put work into the task of ordering of our minds. If we can stick with this effort I feel sure we will be rewarded.
For every degree that our perception sharpens, we see that there is more to be seen. For everything that we think we have come to know and understand, we should be looking about in delight because there is so much more that we do not. The wisest person is the one who is least confident of the extent of their wisdom. To learn, to study, to engage with great minds: this is work but no burden, this is effort but no toil. If we have compassion for humankind, let us make it our mission to help more people realize that while material things offer meager and fleeting rewards, reason’s rewards are abundant.
It seems only proper to let Confucius close for me today Deuteros. He has been my faithful companion throughout and can reinforce today’s learnings in his own words:
I used to spend whole days without food and whole nights without sleep, in order to meditate. But I made no progress. Study, I found, was better. It is not easy to find a man who after three years of self-cultivation has not reached happiness.