Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Quote of the Week

Here's another bit of wisdom from the Stoic philosopher Seneca:

"Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility; we cease to be able to do the things we've long been grudging about doing." (Epistulae Morales, Letter LV)

This is an important point to remember, especially in such an age of "soft living" as we in present-day America now enjoy. It implies a secondary point, nearly as important: that there are things in our lives which we ought to be doing, but which are diffucult for us to do. There are things which do not immediately spark an affinity with our natures and habits, but which are, in spite of that, essential. What are these things? Practices like prayer, moderation, study, exercise, and so on--anything that requires self-discipline. And this speaks directly to who we are. Our human natures do not naturally encourage us to self-discipline. Rather, we slouch towards mediocrity and whatever is comfortable. But Seneca recognizes that this is in fact a disease of human nature--the tendency against self-discipline is part of who we are, but it is not part of who we ought to be. So that's the hidden point of this quote. To be truly human, in the best possible sense, requires a life of challenging ourselves to continuous moral and personal growth. That life will not come easily, but it is necessary. But the main point, the evident point, is that if we don't practice the activities of self-discipline, if we don't intentionally push ourselves towards good deeds and temperance, then we will slowly lose the capability to do those things. They take practice, and if we don't practice them, they become harder and harder to do. We fall into ruts of mediocre living. And then we can't get back out. My generation, sadly, has fallen into the debilities of soft living--of making entertainment and pleasure the center of their lives, brought to them by TV and video games and online attractions. And unfortunately, one needs only to look at the moral stagnation and lack of development in so many young people (but, of course, it's not limited to young people) to see the cost of this debility. It's a danger to me, too--a danger I feel all too powerfully. Soft living is attractive,and easy to fall into. Recently I instituted a plan of action for myself, so that I intentionally make time each day for some good activity. I call them "Day-Challenges"--I have a list of about fifty different activities that I want to make a regular part of my life, activities which take discipline and intentionality (simple things, like taking the time to go on a nature walk or writing letters to my grandparents). If I tried to make myself do them all each day, they would never get done. And if I just left it up to my whims to take them up, they would never get done. So each day, I pick one day-challenge to do that day. Without this intentional self-discipline, practiced in a prudent and sustainable manner, I would be living a much more debilitated life, dictated mainly by the comforts waiting for me at home whenever I come back from the office. Seneca has challenged me on this mark, and I hope he may challenge you too. So take this warning from an ancient wise man, and push yourself to live the best possible life you can, with God's help, before you lose the capacity for practicing the disciplines that will lead to a rich spiritual, moral, and social life.

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