Do you struggle to live up to your principles? Do feel like when you make a mistake that all your efforts were not worth it? In this weeks episode, we’re going to talk about how to approach mistakes in a much more helpful way.
Some of Seneca’s best works are in the form of letters to his friend Annaeus Serenus. In these, they carry on a dialogue as to how to live a better life. In one of the letters on tranquility Serenus writes to Seneca, describing how he feels he is afflicted with a sickness of mind because while he is very frugal, he is dazzled by the great wealth around him, and feeling dissatisfied with his humble house. He wishes to dedicate himself to public service, yet finds when he runs into difficult patches that he simply wants to give up and head for the leisure of his home. When writing or speaking on behalf of causes that are important to him, when he wishes to keep his language simple and clear, Serenus says:
“Then again, when my mind has been uplifted by the greatness of its thoughts, it becomes ambitious of words, and with higher aspirations it desires higher expression, and language issues forth to match the dignity of the theme: forgetful then of my rule and of my more restrained judgment, I am swept to loftier heights by an utterance that is no longer my own.”
In a nutshell, Serenus is having a hard time living up to his ideals and is getting discouraged and disappointed in himself because of his shortcomings. He feels as though he is gradually losing ground in his struggle to become a better person. I think this is something that we can all relate to. I struggle with meeting my own ideals all the time. I want to be kinder, less selfish, more compassionate, less judgmental…so many things that I struggle with and could easily beat myself up over when I fail to live up to my own ideals.
So how do keep going when we falter? How do keep growing and move past these setbacks?
Seneca’s response is long, but I want to read a portion of it:
“In truth, Serenus, I have for a long time been silently asking myself to what I should liken such a condition of mind, and I can find nothing that so closely approaches it as the state of those who, after being released from a long and serious illness, are sometimes touched with fits of fever and slight disorders, and, freed from the last traces of them, are nevertheless disquieted with mistrust, and, though now quite well, stretch out their wrist to a physician and complain unjustly of any trace of heat in their body. It is not, Serenus, that these are not quite well in body, but that they are not quite used to being well; just as even a tranquil sea will show some ripple, particularly when it has just subsided after a storm. What you need, therefore, is not any of those harsher measures which we have already left behind, the necessity of opposing yourself at this point, of being angry with yourself at that, of sternly urging yourself on at another, but that which comes last — confidence in yourself and the belief that you are on the right path, and have not been led astray by the many cross-tracks of those who are roaming in every direction, some of whom are wandering very near the path itself. But what you desire is something great and supreme and very near to being a god — to be unshaken.”
So let’s unpack this. Seneca likens this to be a sick person that has been healed, but is so used to being sick, that anytime they get even the slightest fever, assumes that all it lost again. And this can be like us. When we fall back into old habits and ways of thinking we often feel like because we didn’t meet the ideals or standards that we have, that we are a complete failure, that we are ill again. That it’s kind of an all or nothing proposition. And what Seneca recommends is that when things go off the rails a bit in our efforts to grow, we shouldn’t be too harsh or angry with ourselves, that we should instead be kinder on ourselves and that we should be confident in ourselves that we’re on the right path. This kind of confidence is a virtuous cycle. By being confident in ourselves, we handle our failures better and gain more confidence. And it’s this confidence that allows us to be unshaken.
You’re Going to do it Wrong
So how do we gain this kind of confidence? How do move past our failures? My oldest is now driving and is often so worried behind the wheel that he’s going to do something wrong. And my partner simply says, “Yes, you are going to do it wrong.” Because truth is, we rarely doing something right the first time, especially if it’s something difficult like driving a car or being a less selfish person. Being okay with being wrong, that you will make mistakes is a necessary part of learning. Making mistakes is inevitable. Learning from them is optional.
It’s up to you to decide what your mistakes mean. For those of us that are often too hard on ourselves, just because we make a mistake doesn’t mean we are a bad or unworthy person. It means we’re human. So go easy on yourself.
But how can we be easier on ourselves without allowing ourselves to skate by?
Sincere vs. Serious
A few months ago I read Out of Your Mind by Allen Watts. Now Allen Watts was an interesting character. He was a professor of Asian Studies and an author of several dozen books on Buddhism and Zen. His approach to life was one of self-development, and growth, and not taking life so seriously. And as I was reading I stumbled across this gem:
“I may be sincere, but never serious, because I don’t think the universe is serious.”
— Allen Watts
When I read that quote I laughed out loud, because far too often I am the exact opposite. But it stuck in my head and over the past few weeks, I’ve found it to be a helpful filter on viewing the world. I think that being a sincere person mitigates so much of the self-shaming and anger that we point at ourselves when we fail.
When you make a mistake, and you approach it with sincerity, you can look at the situation more clearly. If you need to you can sincerely apologize. You can be sincere about forgiving yourself, knowing that you are sincerely trying to do your best. Sincerity is humble because you aren’t trying to prove something, or protect your ego. There are no ulterior motives because sincerity is about being honest with compassion.
If you think about it, you can be sincere in almost any context and it’s appropriate. If you are laughing and joking, you can still be sincere. If you’re in a situation where there is sadness, sincerity is a great approach. When you are in an argument with someone, if you can focus on being sincere you’ll probably resolve things much quicker. If you are being sincere, you’re more likely to listen and speak honestly. You aren’t trying to push the other person’s buttons and make the situation worse.
Trying to live up to our ideals is not easy work. The more we grow, the more we see how much more we have to grow. Never satisfied with just resting on our laurels, we set the bar higher, but then feel bad because we’re not as good as we want to be, often ignoring the growth we have made. And that’s kind of a great thing because if we never had something to improve on, some way to grow, then we would have no purpose. It’s also kind of a bad thing because we can perpetually feel like we’re never good enough. Learning to approach life sincerely yet not seriously can help us gain that confidence that we’re on the right path.
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