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Developing Insight, Courage and Endurance

Jung observed that the work of being an evolved human being consists of three parts. Psychology can bring us insight, but then, he insisted, come the moral qualities of the individual: courage and endurance. So, having potentially come to consciousness, to have embraced insight as to what a dilemma is really about, one then has to find the courage to live it in the real world, with all its punitive powers, and to do so over time in the face of opposition both external and internal.” — James Hollis, Living an Examined Life

We’re all evolving at our own pace, becoming what we will, sorting out our individual lifetime feedback loop as it becomes apparent to us. We might have a clear idea of what we are becoming, and then again we might not. There’s no doubt that a strong compass heading offers focus and purpose to an otherwise meandering life, but that doesn’t mean a bit of meandering isn’t essential as we find our way down the path.

Hunter S Thompson, surely more evolved at 22 than I was at that age, wrote an extraordinary letter to a friend who had asked for advice, replying that one reason he might be struggling to know what to do with his life was that “he’d lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence.” There’s merit in expanding horizontally, for it develops in us this insight that only comes from meandering a bit off our upward climb. Insight may lead to dissatisfaction with our current path, which in turn might stir enough courage within to make the changes necessary to climb a different path.

Some of Thompson’s sage advice in that letter to his friend was to “decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.” But the universe doesn’t just bow to our wishes, we must fight for the life we want to live. Inferred in that “see what you can do to make a living” nugget is finding the courage to push for what you want your life to be, not just externally, but especially, internally. Finding the gumption within ourselves to tell that internal voice inside of us to piss off and go for what we want is the real trick to a fulfilling life.

I finally got around to reading Band of Brothers recently after re-watching the series for a third time. The paratroopers who made up Easy Company in the 101st Airborne Division who jumped behind enemy lines on D-Day didn’t just strap on a parachute and jump out of an airplane for the first time that day. How could anyone find that level of courage to do such a thing? They took small steps, first jumping off a small platform harnessed to a cable, then a higher platform, and progressing to a jump from a plane above their base. It took five of these jumps to earn their silver wings, which indicated to the world that they were paratroopers. Even then, it wasn’t until they parachuted into France under fire that they became combat veterans and earned that nickname “Screaming Eagles”.

How are we to be expected to just jump into the thick of it in our own chosen life path? We must pay our dues, apprentice and stumble through the learning phase before we can gain any measure of expertise, let alone develop the courage to leap into the unknown and the street smarts to stand up again unscathed. Our lives are a work in progress, built layer upon layer, and the work never stops. And that’s where endurance comes in. We must strategically sprint now and then throughout our lives, but we can’t forget in our rush to get past the pack that most of life is steady state. If we don’t find a pace that we can sustain that pack will reign us back in and leave us far behind.

It’s easy to write that we need to develop ourselves, but much harder to get out there and tackle it day-after-day. For me, reading, writing this blog (and other things better left unpublished) and generally sorting through life as it comes at me offers the necessary “chart time” to figure out both my current and future place. I’m by no means an expert at this business of living, but I’ve found that this routine levels off the highs and lows of daily living by offering and reinforcing perspective. This is my steady state between the mad dashes of life.

So there are the three legs of the our evolutionary stool, according to Carl Jung: Insight, to help us understand what we want out of life. Courage, to pursue what we want most. And endurance, to sustain the long, arduous slog through a universe that always has other plans for us. Our daily rituals develop all three, and help to keep the dream alive with the proper fuel and maintenance. Those rituals then help us set our course for wherever we dare to take ourselves next.

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