In your actions let there be a willing promptitude, yet a regard for the common interest; due deliberation, yet no irresolution; and in your sentiments no pretentious over-refinement. Avoid talkativeness, avoid officiousness.
The god within you should preside over a being who is virile and mature, a statesman, a Roman, and a ruler; one who has held his ground, like a soldier waiting for the signal to retire from life’s battlefield and ready to welcome his relief; a man whose credit need neither be sworn to by himself nor avouched by others.
Therein is the secret of cheerfulness, of depending on no help from without and needing to crave from no man the boon of tranquility. We have to stand upright ourselves, not be set up.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3:5
In my experience, the line between serving others and depending on others is fine. It is surely good and proper to serve the common good for the benefit of others. Yet it is craven to live beholden to others and depend on their approbation for our cheerfulness.
I feel like I’ve lived on the wrong side of that line for many years; perhaps the whole of my life. I seem only able to be entirely selfish, or entirely subsumed. I can’t seem to find that middle ground where common service meets self-possession.
I end up castigating myself for my inward self-obsession, while simultaneously subsuming myself into another’s life ambition. It doesn’t sound possible, but perhaps these opposites attract.
What is needed is to become self-supporting. Who am I? I can’t ask others to define me any longer; only I can say. My friends and family make kindly suggestions: you are this or that, based on my past. But my past was perhaps just a jumble of other people’s ideas.
How then to establish myself on firmer ground? How to dig in like Marcus’s soldier?
It could certainly start by defining the virtues I believe in. What are my core beliefs? What do I hold to be true of life, from which I cannot be shaken?
I believe that life is for learning. Life is decay, against which our human instinct is to rage. And we rage most defiantly by always learning, growing against the decay, in wisdom. This I believe is our most powerful trait as humans. Making new discoveries while consolidating the old. That is the life I believe in.
I believe that we are one human race. I would like to treat every other manifestation of human consciousness as a brother or sister. That is the target of which I most often fall short. But the target is there now.
This second human instinct expresses itself in an urge to help others, to make their lives more bearable, more thrilling, more alive with possibility and love. It expresses itself in the urge to learn, laugh and play together.
I also believe most strongly that the Universe is our greatest teacher, that time spent in nature is never wasted – indeed, that it is almost always the best use of our time. For too many years I would pass up the chance to swim when I have been near the coast.
We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to domesticating ourselves.
So if we are looking for health and happiness, we should observe the natural world. Eat, use our muscles, build something, get outdoors, be sociable, have sex. There is nothing I can do or be that isn’t well within the bounds of what it is to be human. So relax.
The stars are our most steadfast guides and a life navigated by them can never be lost. We are small, insignificant fireflies in the night of eternity. There is no pressure, then, to succeed or fail because these terms have no meaning for the Universe.
Perhaps these beliefs are not unique among humanity, but they are unique enough, phrased in my own voice, not the voice of others. From their solid foundations, I can make a stand.