The biggest battles I have had in my life have not been battles of success, winning, or defeating others. The biggest battles I have had have been with my own character, virtues, willpower, and developing strength in those areas. They have been internal battles.
The war continues.
One of life’s challenges for me has been to reconcile the joy of spontaneity with the growth of discipline. I am guessing people who really understand the arts, like my brother David, will have a clear understanding of the relationship of creativity to craft to standards and to “the way things are done” (such as the way we practice the flute). The older I become, the more I realize that I have not spent enough time over a lifetime on developing some of the rock solid virtues and practices that over time result in deep joy. I have not practiced “the flute”, but try to improvise on it anyway.
Those qualities – such as a spirit of generosity, gratitude, service, contribution – and practices which lead to them – such as contemplative prayer, healthy routines, daily creation (writing, gardening, building, making, quilting, cooking) result from discipline and keeping to it. I, on the other hand, have a history of flitting from this to that, accomplishing a goal and then moving on, rather then developing something substantial. I have a history of taking the easy way rather than the harder, more substantive way. I have a history of seeking recognition rather than contribution. It’s the difference between wanting “celebrity” and developing the craft of acting over a career, perhaps.
I know that about myself.
(Cynics will note that this whole essay is about me, me, me….)
Qualities of character also include honesty, fidelity, loving your neighbor even when you have completely different backgrounds and belief systems, courtesy, kindness, courage, compassion, and others. These are qualities explicitly lifted up in a civil society. Yet where are they taught? How are they being rewarded in the public square these days? Who are our role models, from whom we can learn vicariously?
It should be parents. It should be religious teachers and leaders. It should be teachers. It should be the leaders of a country, or athletes, or other people we view with admiration.
These people of substance are not always in the first news story or getting the most “press”. If they are not already in our lives, they must be sought.
I have lost battles of the most important kind over a lifetime. We all have, if we are imperfect humans. But Michael’s War – the battleground (I’m not sure this is the best metaphor for this, but I’m going with it here) for how he develops and practices what John Wesley might call Holy Tempers (temperance, meekness, gentleness, fidelity, longsuffering), or which might be found in the beatitudes (poor in spirit, merciful, peacemakers, as examples), or other texts such as Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, is where character is developed and nurtured over a lifetime. Those daily battles to humbly do what’s right, caring, meaningful – are daily skirmishes which lead toward the flag.
At some point, like the battle to get up and go to the gym or the battle to put aside that piece of cake, the battle becomes a “practice”, it becomes “who you are”, it becomes joyful.
Then, it’s no battle at all. Not even a quest.
It’s who you are.
In the meantime, it’s who you and I are, and are still becoming.