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Masters of the Art of Life

Dive deep with me on this quote, there’s a lot to it:

“In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister [“Only the master shows himself in the limitation,”] says Goethe. Mâle résignation, this also is the motto of those who are masters of the art of life; “manly,” that is to say, courageous, active, resolute, persevering, “resignation,” that is to say, self-sacrifice, renunciation, limitation. Energy in resignation, there lies the wisdom of the sons of earth, the only serenity possible in this life of struggle and of combat. In it is the peace of martyrdom, in it too the promise of triumph. – Henri Frédéric Amiel, Amiel’s Journal

“Manly resignation” seems counterintuitive, contradictory and weak to some. But dig deeper here into the words used to describe resignation: self-sacrifice, renunciation and limitation. These are anything but weakness, they’re honorable traits. It takes courage to stand up and voice a counter argument, to say this isn’t right, this will not stand. It takes courage to face ridicule and violence. The weak are the blind followers.  What shall you be?

Only the master shows himself in the limitation… visually I leap to Obi Wan Kenobi raising his light saber in concession to Darth Vader in Star Wars. But who really won in the end? In real life, it means finding common ground, conceding a point, compromise for the greater good. The art of diplomacy.  The REAL art of the deal, not the con man version.  All very adult traits that Congress might wish to return to. Traits any good leader has. Any good parent. Any good spouse. The United States is not currently being led by someone who shows himself in the limitation. But the country recoils and will spit out this poison pill eventually. I hope in a few months.

“Masters in the art of life” suggests the easy path on its face. But life isn’t easy, and the art of life is making it look easy while you press ahead doing the work that matters.  Any fool can set aside responsibilities and chase after pots of gold on the other side of the rainbow. Decide what to be and go be it, but remember the truly great people, the masters in the art of life, are the people who sacrifice of themselves for the greater good.  Not frivolously, but for the things that matter.  Who are the masters in the art of life?  I think of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, John Muir, George Washington, Clara Barton, and dozens more.  All of them very human, with flaws some were/are eager to point out as if to elevate their own standing.  But all rose above the common man or woman, showing themselves in resignation, not of the fight, but of the easier path.

Maybe we all can’t be the answer on some future Jeopardy trivia question, but we can be an anchor in our family, in our community, in our careers.  We can be linchpins, as Seth Godin would put it, that hold things together even in the most trying of times.  And maybe that’s enough. To throw another couple of movie characters at you, it’s so much harder to be George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, but don’t we have to try?  Looking around at the moment, it seems plenty want to try.  That’s the recoil in action.  The pendulum swinging back to center.  This is not who we ought to be.  This will not be who we will be from now on.  We can be better than this.  Decide what to be and go be it.

In a bit of trivia perhaps interesting only to me and the parents who conceived me, Amiel wrote that entry in his journal 114 years to the day before I was born. He was 31 at the time. He was wise beyond his years. If there’s a joy in reading, its in mining gold from the ages. Tapping into the Great Conversation is available to all of us, so why don’t more people seize the opportunity?  To master the art of life, it helps to learn from those who have been here before.  I’m a work in progress myself, but try to learn a bit more every day, and apply some of that wisdom in my own life.  I may not be Obi Wan Kenobi, but I can try to be George Bailey.

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