Towards the end of the book “Why We make Mistakes: How we look without seeing, Forget things in seconds, and are all all pretty sure we are above average”, the Pulitzer winning journalist and writer, Joseph Hallinan writes of a conversation with David Schkade (Professor at the University of California, San Diego) who tells him that “after more than a decade of studying what makes people happy”, he has come to the conclusion that happiness is really about “how you use your time.”
In his book “The Principles of Psychology — Volume I”, published in 1890, one of the fathers of psychology, William James, writes that what we do every day, every moment matters — not just for our happiness but because at all times.
We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.
We shape ourselves every moment and “if we habitually” fashion “our characters in the wrong way”, we will find that “The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world….”
In the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”, we read the poymath writing of his life project – “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” Benjamin writes that early in his life, he decided that he “wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.”
To succeed in this, Benjamin articulated some “virtues” that would guide his life. In detailing one of these virtues, we read his plan (a sort of schedule) to “order” each day. It is clear that every moment mattered for Benjamin. And the day for Benjamin begins with answering a question: “What good shall I do this day?” The day ends with the question: “What good have I done to-day?”
“Said a blade of grass to an autumn leaf, “You make such a noise falling! You scatter all my winter dreams.”
Said the leaf indignant, “Low-born and low-dwelling! Songless, peevish thing! You live not in the upper air and you cannot tell the sound of singing.”
Then the autumn leaf lay down upon the earth and slept. And when spring came she waked again — and she was a blade of grass.
And when it was autumn and her winter sleep was upon her, and above her through all the air the leaves were falling, she muttered to herself, “O these autumn leaves! They make such noise! They scatter all my winter dreams.”
Richard Jefferies, the writer besotted with Nature, writes (“The Life of the Fields” published in 1884) of watching “the earth….every blade of grass, each separate floret and petal….”
“Each gives me”, he tells us, “something of the pure joy they gather for themselves….Feeling with them, I receive some, at least, of their fulness of life.”
Then, he soars.
The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time….This is real life, and all else is illusion, or mere endurance.
Echoing sages, he writes: “To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of nature. If I cannot achieve it, at least I can think it.”
Peace Pilgrim writes (“Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her own Words”) that “there’s only one person you can change and that’s yourself.” She goes on: “After you have changed yourself, you might be able to inspire others to look for change.”
The psychologist Erica Reischer, writes (in a 15th September 2014 piece titled “Change Yourself First”) about adopting a dog with her husband.
“We soon realized we needed help managing a variety of challenging puppy behaviors, so we signed up for a dog-training class, eager to train our dog and change her problematic habits.
To our surprise, the dog-training class was less about training our dog and more about training us….we learned that to change our dog’s behavior, we had to change our behavior first. And that is a lesson we can apply to our relationships with people, too.”
Erica ends with a lesson for parents (and for each of us): “….to change your kids [or anyone], you have to start by changing yourself.”
During his second visit to meet Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, M argued (“The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna”) that people who worship clay images as God should be told that “the clay image is not God.” Ramakrishna Paramahamsa responded with a deep Teaching: “That’s….one hobby of you Calcutta people — giving lectures and bringing others to the light! Nobody ever stops to consider how to get the light himself. Who are you to teach others?….Suppose there is an error in worshipping the clay image; doesn’t God know that through it He alone is being invoked? He will be pleased with that very worship. Why should you get a headache over it? You had better try for knowledge and devotion yourself.”
In “Time Must Have a Stop”, published in 1944, we listen to Aldous Huxley teach through one of the characters, Carlo, that “there’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” Aldous goes on:
So you have to begin there, not outside, not on other people. That comes afterwards, when you’ve worked on your own corner. You’ve got to be good before you can do good — or at any rate do good without doing harm at the same time. Helping with one hand and hurting with the other — that’s what the ordinary reformer does….The wise man begins by transforming himself, so that he can help other people without running the risk of being corrupted in the process.
Muhammad Ali tells us in his autobiography, “The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey” that “People say that I gave away too much money during my boxing career.” He goes on: “They write about how some people took advantage of me, stole from me, and how I let them get away with it. Even when I knew people were cheating me, what was important was how I behaved, because I have to answer to God. I can’t be responsible for other people’s actions. They will have to answer to God….I have never sought retribution against those who have hurt me because I believe in forgiveness. I have practiced forgiving, just as I want to be forgiven.”
Parker J. Palmer writes (“Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”) about listening to the late black Senator John Lewis as they travelled together in a bus.
In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend did not fight back, and they declined to press charges. They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.
In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?” Lewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”
As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice — as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him — Lewis said, “People can change . . . People can change . . .”
In the Introduction to his translation of the Upanishads (“The Principal Upanishads”), S. Radhakrishnan writes: “A forgiving attitude frees the individual. We should grudge none, and forgive all.”
In “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”, Karen Armstrong writes that “one small act of kindness can turn a life around.” Jack London explains why in “White Fang”, a story about a wolf-dog, published in 1906. He writes that “Human kindness” is the “sun shining”, which helps us flourish “like a flower planted in good soil.”
Naomi Shihab Nye observes, in the poem “Kindness” (one of the poems in in “Words Under the Words: Selected Poems”) that “it is only kindness that makes sense anymore….”
In the commencement address to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences , the writer George Saunders tells his audience:
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Guy Stagg narrates, in “The Crossway”, his pilgrimage-walk from Canterbury (the UK) to Jerusalem — a walk (probably about 5000 kms) he set off on trying to recover from a nervous breakdown when he was about 23 years young. Towards the end, we read what is probably the main illumination from his pilgrimage : “In the end, the kindness was all that mattered.”
In his 1865 novel, “Our Mutual Friend”, we read Charles Dickens on the spirit of kindness — it is having “a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts….”
We listen to Swami Vivekananda (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”) exhort the Graduate Philosophy Society of Harvard University on 25th March 1896: “Love everyone as your own self, because the whole universe is one.” What does this loving mean?
Thich Nhat Hanh, in “How to Love” teaches us that “True love includes a sense of responsibility and accepting the other person as she is, with all her strengths and weaknesses. If you only like the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding, and energy to help her….”
The psychologist Erich Fromm writes in “The Art of Loving” that “the main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism.” Thomas Merton explains this in “No Man is an Island”: “The beginning of love is….the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
In a letter to his son (14 years young), written on 10th November 1958 (“Steinbeck: A Life in Letters”), the author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck writes: “There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect….The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.”
If we want the world to heal and bloom, we would do well to ponder something in Swami Vivekananda’s lines deeply — he says love “everyone”….
Kate Marvel, climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, writes in a 2017 OnBeing piece that “We should never have called it Earth. Three quarters of the planet’s surface is saltwater….”
W H Auden ends the poem “First Things First” (in “Collected Poems”) with this immortal line: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
Shannon Lee begins “Be Water, My Friend: The True Teachings of Bruce Lee” with the following words from Bruce Lee, her father:
Be Water. Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow or it can crash! Be water, my friend.
In “The Penelopiad”, we read Margaret Atwood: “Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it.”
The Roman philosopher-statesman, Seneca, who was asked by Emperor Nero to kill himself, writes (“On the Shortness of Life” translated by Gareth D. Williams) around 50 AD that “It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it.”
“Life”, he tells us “is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested.” He thunders further on in the book: “Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it’s respectable to be greedy.”
As the essay unfolds, we feel Seneca pouring from the depths of his soul. Seize the day, he says. “Even when you’ve seized it, it will still slip away; and so you must compete with time’s quickness in the speed with which you use it, and you must drink swiftly as if from a fast-moving torrent that will not always flow.”
Matthieu Ricard likens time (“On the Path to Enlightenment”), to “gold dust” and cautions us not let it run “through our fingers”. He writes: “Every moment of our lives has tremendous value.” He encourages us to “be aware that every second of our life is inestimably precious”, and asks that we “make the best use of it for our own good and the good of others.”
In “The Writing Life”, Annie Dillard reminds us that this hour, this minute matters. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”