“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” That’s commonly attributed to Confucius, whose wisdom I’m imitating. An awful lot of what I know has come from the harsh lash of experience, even when my own thoughts sufficiently counseled me to avoid the pitfalls lying directly ahead. Reflection, I’ve found, is most gratifying, but some of us will insist on exploring the jagged roads of hostile experience, if for no other reason than to satisfy stubborn curiosity.
In the spirit of the approaching New Year, allow me to suggest some resolutions that might keep you situated toward the first two methods above for pursuing a good life and finding peace, while sparing you some of the trouble I’ve sometimes refused to avoid.
(1) Learn to take a joke about yourself. No matter how clever or talented you are, there will be a moment when you do something stupid. Have the grace and humility to laugh along with those who might laugh at you. Learning that talent will disarm even your biggest critic.
(2) But don’t be a jester. Nobody will respect somebody who does not respect himself.
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(3) Every failure really is an opportunity. No matter how awful it first appears to be, there is no setback that does not also contain the seeds for success. Look for those seeds, take the time to plant them, and have the patience to watch them grow. There is a reason we instinctively enjoy the comeback story and the heroic underdog: we know what sacrifices were required to achieve eventual victory. These are the legends we celebrate.
(4) Always keep your word, no matter what. If you resolve to do this one thing in life, you will set yourself apart from most people and always find that your opinion is taken seriously.
(5) Do everything you can to avoid even the smallest lie. Even the best intentioned falsehoods have a way of making others question our words and doubt our intentions.
(6) Get and stay fit. Someday you may be the only person capable of saving a life, even if that life is your own. Be ready for that moment.
(7) Learn from everyone you meet. Every person on the planet has something to teach. If you don’t know what that could possibly be when interacting with someone you’d rather avoid, then keep thinking about it until you do. We learn the most unexpected things from the most unexpected people.
(8) Question everything you’re told. Conformity and obedience are for people who are willing to hand over their brains and spines to lesser men who will gladly accept them so they may rule over the brainless and spineless for personal benefit.
(9) Fight for your principles and against those who wish to box you in. Your principles define you. If you allow others to reshape or dissolve them on your behalf, then they aren’t your principles anymore. They’ve become your marching orders.
(10) Do everything you can to forgive in your heart those who wound you. Never stop fighting for what is right, but be the first to forgive. Finding the capacity to forgive your worst enemies is the only way to find some measure of peace in a tumultuous world.
(11) Find happiness in struggle because struggle is what life is. If you can accept that you might be fighting uphill battles in this life, it is amazing how quickly you can teach yourself to forget how steep those hills are.
(12) Remember that righteous anger is rare. In my experience, most anger is redirected self-pity or self-hate. We see in others some vulnerability we also see in ourselves or some mistake we have too often made, too. Before allowing anger and rage to take over, ask yourself honestly if the wrath you are about to unleash on others is really meant for yourself.
(13) Seek to live honorably every day. Honor is real; don’t let the unscrupulous convince you otherwise. Those with honor seek out others with honor. And when things go to hell, the honorable instinctively band together, backs against one another, so they can fight whatever approaches without worrying about what’s lurking from behind.
(14) Don’t worry about the occasional foul. I had a basketball coach once say that if you get through a game without three fouls, you’re not playing hard enough; if you end up fouling out of the game, though, you’re not playing smart enough. The difference between three and five fouls is small but significant. Some rules are meant to be broken. Some laws are unjust. Nobody gets out of this game of life alive, so make sure to play hard all the way through the whistle. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet figured out how to play tough without breaking every rule, then it’s time to rethink your strategy.
(15) Treat everyone you meet with respect. People who cannot demonstrate simple respect for others will receive none in return. Every life is worthy of respect, and those who cannot see this truth are the first to cause harm and misery. Even if you must first bloody your enemy’s nose, you must not forget that he is human.
(16) Wear your scars with pride. Everything comes with a cost. Every bump or bruise comes with a story. If you choose to live as honorably and as virtuously as possible, then even the ugliest scar is proof of your mettle and armor for a future battle.
(17) Anything worth pursuing comes with risk, except for loving God Almighty and receiving His guidance. You are never alone in this world when you accept God into your heart. Pursue that wholeheartedly, and you will find that obstacles with great risks simply disappear.
(18) Never let somebody tell you that some discipline of knowledge is off-limits because you’re not a “specialist.” The idea of specialization is a rather recent human invention that allows small minds to seem greater than they are by blocking competition. People who believe that expertise can only be conferred through credentials and degrees are people who will follow “experts” to their own doom while never experiencing the joy of having original thoughts. Be a generalist. Read everything. Never stop learning.
(19) Remember that you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s enough to make a smart coward freeze in his tracks. A little courage and wisdom counsel a man to tread carefully through life. And then there are Marxists, who never know what they don’t know and have never let that stop them from proving they know so little.
(20) Never underestimate the existence of evil. Just as certain acoustic frequencies sound harmoniously pleasant to the ear, certain moral harmonics help us to understand deeply the differences between good and evil. Those who say the battle between good and evil is not real deny the music of our universe. Spread that music by doing good and draining out the discord. Others will listen and find inspiration in what they hear.
Happy new year!
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