“I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.”

May 4th, 2008


Here’s another in my series of reactions to Pope John XXIII’s daily decalogue:

8. Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.

Goethe’s motto was “Ohne hast, ohne rast,” which translates, “Without haste, without rest.” It’s as good an idea as I’ve ever come across for getting your work done steadily. Too often we rush into things headlong when we ought to pause and think, or else we tarry overlong when we ought to forge ahead. Pope John’s words and Goethe’s caution us against both of these unwise courses.

Decisions require some degree of bravery. Etymology tells us that “Decide” shares a root with “excise” and “incise” and “concise” and “scissors.” The common theme is “cutting,” and decision implies cutting off some options; often, hard decisions are hard because they imply cutting off options that might be appealing, or because we must guess which option will turn out the best even though we lack good information.

Yet this is no reason not to take a decision. In truth, we are deciding all the time — even when we are deciding subconsciously to fool ourselves that we can put off making a decision forever. It requires self-possession to break free from this type of self-delusion. But no one said that growing up would be easy.

The problem with much self-help advice — a problem I’ve abetted, no doubt, with some of the glib advice I’ve given here — is that it portrays personal change as easy, and portrays the answers to life’s deep problems as easy. While it’s true that many who suffer could take simple steps to suffer less, I think it’s also true that Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled was so popular in part because of the candor in its opening line: “Life is hard.”

Life doesn’t always have to be hard, and not all parts of life are hard at all. But the truth is, reshaping your behavior IS work — work that neuroscientists can track with their scans, and work we understand intuitively when we consider the emotional and physical strains we feel when we make big changes.

But we have the ability to work ahead steadily, with an explicit plan or an implicit one. We have the ability to keep ourselves moving forward, not in a hurry but not dragging our feet either. We can acknowledge that life is sometimes hard, and that changing our lives for the better will sometimes bring discomfort. Sometimes we will backslide. Sometime our plans will fall through. But we can still decide to deal with these realities as if they are not the end of the world, and as if we deserve to live better today than we did yesterday — even when it’s hard.


Previously in this series:


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