084 - On Inspiration And Progress - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Somewhere between inspiration and progress lies the magic that makes things happen. “What is this magic,” you ask? It is action. We start with an idea, perhaps we have a goal we are trying to achieve. As yet we are in the realm of the mind. Well and good, for we praise the virtue of reason and a well-ordered mind above all else. But to see progress we must move from our thoughts and engage in actions. “This is a trivial insight at best,” I hear you saying. Perhaps so for it is indeed easily said. But ask yourself why so many fail to make the transition from good ideas to good actions, from good thoughts to good deeds.
I realize I did not finish the good deed in my last letter of describing my day to you. I left off before lunchtime even. The addition that has most enriched my time post full-time employment has been spending more meaningful time with my wife. We have taken up the habit of walking. For hours we roam the paths around our house, to the extent that it makes my running seem like strolling. We have walked the treads off several pairs of shoes already, and we are eager to push our legs and our soles further.
As far and widely as we wander our conversations roam even wider: life, love, politics; family, friends, strangers; COVID, vaccines, and healthcare; good examples, bad examples, how to moderate extremes. How to keep relationships with friends at a distance, how to support far-away family, and how best to encourage our children’s development. Ultimately all topics come back to the practical questions of what to do with our time and how to live our lives. If you wonder at my appetite for philosophical conversation, Deuteros, it is because I have come into the habit of daily practice with such positive reinforcement.
As enjoyable as the walks and conversations are, there comes the time when talking ends and we must implement on our decisions. People hesitate not because they lack for decisiveness. It is because they fear the consequences of their decisions. If you deliberate you are being careful and thoughtful. As soon as you act you open yourself up to criticism: was it the right time to act, was this the right decision, did you implement in the right way? We would rather be paralyzed and do nothing than take action and be seen to have decided wrongly.
“What will free us from deliberation purgatory and get us moving again from our paralysis of indecision,” you ask? My counsel is for you to continue talking but this time engage in some soothing self-talk. If you have applied your well-ordered thinking and are deciding for the right reasons, tell yourself that you have done well no matter the short-term outcome. Though your plans go immediately awry that is not the benchmark you will measure yourself against, no matter what others think or say. You will remind yourself that steady movement in a consistent direction will bring you great distances if only you are steady in your application. Course corrections are so much easier if you are already moving, so get about the business of moving in the direction of your choosing.
That Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci is said to have said as much with these words:
I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.
I would add to his wisdom an exhortation from the Buddha, who is otherwise so gentle in his expectations:
There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way and not starting.
We must start living our lives, my dear Deuteros, by acting them out in full measure. Otherwise what are we waiting for? Whether we are ready to go all the way I cannot say. But I am already walking the path of wisdom, and the further I progress the more I see. I see you clearly in my company, and I would have you continue on in this fashion.
Do you ask how to speed your own progress? I have a thought for you that you can put into action at your convenience. I talked to you recently of the companions we have always at our sides, sharing the road with us as they inspire us with their wisdom across the ages. To ensure you stay headed in a true direction, make it your daily habit to not only spend time with these companions, but to make their wisdom your own. Synthesize the best lessons you have found as viewed through your own particular lens.
And take the final step to commit your understanding to paper, if not for the benefit of posterity then at least to send to me. You will deepen and refine your knowledge by first seeking to mine it from within the confines of your head and then by sharing it with another. Fear not that you are working ground well-trodden by earlier treasure hunters. There will never be a time when everything is known and all mysteries are discovered. Make your own contribution. In this way you will make lasting progress no matter what fruits your labors bear.