Though I’m sure I will get a strong reaction from some of you, I have to admit something: I like country music. I used to hate it, but then a friend of mine would constantly play it on his radio and over time, the genre grew on me.
I was listening to the radio the other day and a song by Brantley Gilbert came on. It’s called One Hell of an Amen and one part of the chorus really got me thinking [emphasis mine].
An’ that’s One Hell of an Amen
That’s the only way to go
Fightin’ the good fight
Til the Good Lord calls you home
And so be well my friend
Til’ I see you again
This is our last goodbye
But it’s a Hell of an Amen, Amen
It seems that the goal of modernity is to consistently remove struggle and suffering from our lives. In fact, struggle and suffering suggest there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our countries/governments/cultures/companies work. If it’s painful, we should do our best to get rid of it.
But there is something to be said for suffering and struggle and “fighting the good fight.” Fighting the good fight is good not because you might eventually win, but rather, because struggling is good for its own sake.
David Brooks writes in his book, The Road to Character,
“Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies. This struggle against, say, selfishness or prejudice or insecurity gives meaning and shape to life. It is more important than the external journey up the ladder of success. This struggle against sin is the great challenge, so that life is not futile or absurd. It is possible to fight this battle well or badly, humorlessly or with cheerful spirit. Contending with weakness often means choosing what parts of yourself to develop and what parts not to develop. The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness is not to “win,” because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it. It doesn’t matter if you work at a hedge fund or a charity serving the poor. There are heroes and schmucks in both worlds. “
The ancients were well aware of this need to struggle. They knew it was the only way we could become more complete, more whole. Different traditions emphasize different types of struggle, but they never get away of it. There is always a good fight at the core of their teachings.
In my experiments with The Ancient Wisdom Project, here are some of the core struggles I’ve encountered that I believe are worth adopting.
The struggle against control
So much of our lives are dedicated to attaining more control in numerous domains. At work, we want more control over our hours or the type of work we do or how much money we wake. In our relationships we want others to act according to our own (often silly or impossible) standards. We even want traffic to move faster.
This desire for control can lead to chronic anxiety, because many things are not within our control. We can influence our success at work, but bosses, competitive coworkers, and market events can derail even our most valiant efforts. We can try to get our partners and spouses to be more thoughtful or organized or sympathetic, but they have their own ways of going about things and we just have to live with it. Traffic…well…you get the picture.
The Stoics understood this problem and stated it quite clearly:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The real struggle is not to control others or our external environment, but rather, to gain control of our own mind and actions. We should do our best to not let people or events disturb us, and in fact, use those opportunities as tests of our own character.
After I left the Navy, I thought living abroad and traveling would be a wonderful experience that could solve all my problems. It didn’t work. In hindsight, this was really an attempt to change something in my external environment (my location), to fix something internal…a lack of direction.
The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place… As it is, however, you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek, —to live well, —is found everywhere.
If I had heeded Seneca’s advice, I still might have gone abroad, but with the understanding that simply being somewhere else can’t fix you.
Making more money won’t fix you. Fixing your partner won’t fix you. Getting out of traffic….well, that actually works and brings happiness.
So let’s embrace the struggle of internal control and abandon the external one.
The struggle against our broken nature
In Christian doctrine there is a concept called Original Sin. It says that because Adam and Even disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, humanity has been cursed with a sinful nature.
I used to think this was a stupid idea. How could I possibly be responsible for something two fictional human beings thousands of years ago?
But the more I thought about it, and the more ancient wisdom experiments I did, the more I realized that Original Sin is not an explanation for, but rather, a reminder of the baser sides of human nature. We can often be petty and jealous and mean-spirited and harbor ill-will towards others. We sometimes do things that hurt others and in the process, hurt ourselves.
During my Catholic month I discovered how selfish I was, and how most of my thoughts and worries centered on what I wanted. It was only through performing Jesuit spirtitual exercises was I able to clearly see how detrimental this was, how it caused feelings of “desolation.”
Spiritual desolation, in contrast, is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts. We feel bombarded by temptations and mired in self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others. Such feelings, in Ignatius’s words, “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love. One is completely listless, tepid, and unhappy, and feels separated from our Creator and Lord” (SE 317).
– SJ Kevin O’Brien, The Ignatian Adventure
I admit that initially, all the God and Jesus talk was a bit of a turn-off, but I was relieved to find such apt descriptions of my general state of mind in centuries-old text. Modern descriptions like stress and anxiety or depression are fine, but they felt lacking. The concepts of Original Sin mixed with the concepts of desolation and separation of God felt more appropriate. The idea that deep restlessness comes from our broken nature is a powerful one. It leads to a different set of solutions than the typical stress-reduction techniques advocated in Harvard Business Review.
In Islam, the term Jihad means to struggle. Early in Islamic history, it is almost always used in the context of warfare. Later the idea of the “greater jihad” came to be more widely accepted. This “greater jihad” is the internal, spiritual struggle against our baser natures.
During my Islam month, I embraced the practice of salat, or prayer, five times per day. The act of praying forced me to be more self-aware of my own shortcomings, in particular, my arrogance. I pride myself on being smarter and more logical than others, which often leads me to dismiss their thoughts and opinions. I psychologically dimish their status and aggrandize on my own. When you have just prayed and have vowed to serve God, it’s hard not to notice how fallible you are.
But acknowledging our own weaknesses and struggling against them should be one of the “good fights” we fight all our lives, and it should take precedence over some of the more trivial struggles we find ourselves in.
The struggle against narrative
As a government consultant, it’s difficult to explain what I do at parties. In fact, it’s not even clear to me what exactly it is I do. It doesn’t fit neatly into any sort of category, and I find that saying I help make Excel graphs that will be copied and pasted into PowerPoints quite….underwhelming. I usually try to turn the subject to other matters.
However, the problem isn’t the ambiguity of my work, rather, it’s my fundamental desire to create a narrative for myself, one that can be readily understood by myself and others. We want narratives that command respect and admiration, or at the very least, don’t embarrass us (If you’ve ever been to a party while unemployed, you’ll understand).
This desire for narratives can lead to problems. If you invest your ego into your professional identity, and all of a sudden you lose that, you will naturally feel very depressed. If you want to move from one narrative to another, say, transition from being a professional and to a stay at home mom/dad, you may delay the decision to have kids due to your attachment to your professional identity, even though you understand being at home with kids may be the more rewarding path. Or, if you don’t have a narrative that you believe suits you (personality mismatch, not as prestigious/cool/interesting, etc.), you’ll feel lost.
Part of this is due to a successful modern economy (at least, in the US and most developed countries). You generally have options to choose between several narrative identities; you’re not destined to adopt your family’s historical trade, say, farming.
But the ancients devised religious and philosophical systems that helped people deal with their lack of options.
Let’s take the Bhagavad Gita for example. The Gita is a Hindu scripture written in a time when society was stratified by the caste system. There was a warrior class, priestly class, merchant class, farming class, etc. Moving between the classes was virtually impossible, so your fate was determined at birth.
The Gita doesn’t say “if you work hard you can eventually move from the farming class to the merchant class.” What it says is that these worldly class distinctions are only temporary, that there is a greater reality that lies beyond the material world from which the material world comes from. Though we acknowledge that in life each person is distinct, we are part of a common system.
You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies. Realizing that which is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unchanging, how can you slay or cause another to slay?
As one abandons worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within.
– The Gita
Though the Gita is quite mystical, the lessons are important in a modern, secular context as well. You will likely step into many roles in your life, not simply be stuck in one. But while you’re in these roles (professional or otherwise), you should strive to attain a level of detachment at them while still doing the best you can to perform your obligations. Do not worry about whether you are in your dream job, or whether or not your idiot high school classmate is bafflingly more successful than you.
Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness. Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. 50 When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill.
– The Gita
You don’t need to give up narratives or material ambition completely, but if you learn to treat your strivings as a sort of game, a game in which you strive to play well but are okay with losing, you will maintain a sense of a calm and tranquility.
Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.
By moving through life with a sense of detachment from the narratives we voluntarily adopt or have forced upon us, we can learn to be me more attuned to the inter-connectedness of the world we live in, rather than focus on non-important distinctions.
Instead of finding ways to avoid struggle in all aspects of our lives, we should instead dedicate ourselves to finding the right struggles, the “good fight” that can add depth and meaning to what may otherwise be an empty existence.