Pay attention. Focus on your surroundings, physical and psychological. Notice something that bothers you, that concerns you, that will not let you be, which you could fix, that you would fix. You can find such somethings by asking yourself (as if you genuinely want to know) three questions: “What is it that is bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” and “Would I actually be willing to fix it?” If you find that the answer is “no,” to any or all of the questions, then look elsewhere. Aim lower. Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it. That might be enough for the day.
Maybe there is a stack of paper on your desk, and you have been avoiding it.You won’t even really look at it, when you walk into your room. There are terrible things lurking there: tax forms, and bills and letters from people wanting things you aren’t sure you can deliver. Notice your fear, and have some sympathy for it. Maybe there are snakes in that pile of paper. Maybe you’ll get bitten. Maybe there are even hydras lurking there. You’ll cut off one head, and seven more will grow. How could you possibly cope with that?
You could ask yourself, “Is there anything at all that I might be willing to do about that pile of paper? Would I look, maybe, at one part of it? For twenty minutes?” Maybe the answer will be, “No!” But you might look for ten, or even for five (and if not that, for one). Start there. You will soon find that the entire pile shrinks in significance, merely because you have looked at part of it. And you’ll find that the whole thing is made of parts. What if you allowed yourself a glass of wine with dinner, or curled up on the sofa and read, or watched a stupid movie, as a reward? What if you instructed your wife, or your husband, to say“good job” after you fixed whatever you fixed? Would that motivate you? The people from whom thanks you want might not be very proficient in offering it, to begin with, but that shouldn’t stop you. People can learn, even if they are very unskilled at the beginning. Ask yourself what you would require to be motivated to undertake the job, honestly, and listen to the answer. Don’t tell yourself, “I shouldn’t need to do that to motivate myself.” What do you know about yourself? You are, on the one hand, the most complex thing in the entire universe, and on the other, someone who can’t even set the clock on your microwave. Don’t over-estimate your self-knowledge.
Let the tasks for the day announce themselves for your contemplation. Maybe you can do this in the morning, as you sit on the edge of your bed. Maybe you can try, the night before, when you are preparing to sleep. Ask yourself for a voluntary contribution. If you ask nicely, and listen carefully, and don’t try any treachery, you might be offered one. Do this every day, for a while. Then do it for the rest of your life. Soon you will find yourself in a different situation. Now you will be asking yourself, habitually, “What could I do, that I would do, to make Life a little better?” You are not dictating to yourself what “better” must be. You are not being a totalitarian, or a utopian, even to yourself, because you have learned from the Nazis and the Soviets and the Maoists and from your own experience that being a totalitarian is a bad thing. Aim high. Set your sights on the betterment of Being. Align yourself, in your soul, with Truth and the Highest Good. There is habitable order to establish and beauty to bring into existence.There is evil to overcome, suffering to ameliorate, and yourself to better.
It is this, in my reading, that is the culminating ethic of the canon of the West. It is this, furthermore, that is communicated by those eternally confusing, glowing stanzas from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the essence, in some sense, of the wisdom of the New Testament. This is the attempt of the Spirit of Mankind to transform the understanding of ethics from the initial, necessary Thou Shalt Not of the child and the Ten Commandments into the fully articulated, positive vision of the true individual. This is the expression not merely of admirable self-control and self-mastery but of the fundamental desire to set the world right. This is not the cessation of sin, but sin’s opposite, good itself. The Sermon on the Mount outlines the true nature of man, and the proper aim of mankind: concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is right in front of you—but do that only after you have decided to let what is within shine forth, so that it can justify Being and illuminate the world. Do that only after you have determined to sacrifice whatever it is that must be sacrificed so that you can pursue the highest good.
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or,Where withal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (Luke 12: 22–34 )
Realization is dawning. Instead of playing the tyrant, therefore, you are paying attention. You are telling the truth, instead of manipulating the world. You are negotiating, instead of playing the martyr or the tyrant. You no longer have to be envious, because you no longer know that someone else truly has it better. You no longer have to be frustrated, because you have learned to aim low, and to be patient. You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely. You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself.
Attend to the day, but aim at the highest good.
Now, your trajectory is heavenward. That makes you hopeful. Even a man on a sinking ship can be happy when he clambers aboard a lifeboat! And who knows where he might go, in the future. To journey happily may well be better than to arrive successfully…
Ask, and ye shall receive. Knock, and the door will open. If you ask, as if you want, and knock, as if you want to enter, you may be offered the chance to improve your life, a little; a lot; completely—and with that improvement, some progress will be made in Being itself.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.