Well I have been absent from the blogosphere for a while thanks to a busy semester, but I guess that just means I have more to say! The topic I wanted to write about today is sort of a good one to start back blogging about.
It seems, although somewhat subconsciously, that I have been trying to compile a list of what I think are the most important human virtues. While I think most people could rattle off a list of such qualities, I’ve been trying to pare down the list to the essentials. It occurred to me that many qualities are somewhat related. I’ve written about the importance of compassion. In it I think are many other qualities like empathy, generosity, kindness, etc. Humility is another one that I think is really important and have blogged about before. So today I want to talk about what I think is a 3rd very important virtue and that vigilance. To be clear and add some definition, vigilance, to me, is also the quality of determination and more importantly perseverance.
One of my favorite quotes from a person of history is this quote by Gandhi, “Nearly everything you do is of no importance, but it is important that you do it.”. At first such a quote might
seem kind of depressing, but I do not think this is what Gandhi was saying, and I think that this quote speaks to the importance of vigilance in life. Life is full of mundane tasks that must be done, not all of them are joyful, nor are they painful, they are just chores that need to be done, often daily; things like brushing your teeth, washing dishes, taking out the garbage, etc. And it’s not to say that these things might not be joyful for some people too. There is something nice about the feeling of clean teeth, or a clean kitchen, but even if there isn’t, it is important that these things be done. Even if you are rich enough to have someone who does a lot of chores, you are likely to still have tasks that need to be done that are sort of mindless. These tasks are often, most of the things we do in a given day. So I think Gandhi recognized this aspect of our lives, but also recognized the importance of those actions as being valuable over time, even if they have little immediate impact. Children for instance need consistency over time as they themselves experience so many new things, a parent who is consistent in their actions and being there for their child is important. Relationships require trust that demands a certain constancy of character in others that you forge relationships with. Good health and long life requires a lifetime of good choices about hygiene, nutrition, and exercise. I have often told people that getting a Ph.D. is not as much about how smart you are, but your ability to persevere through a lot of work, hoops, and bureaucracy (I don’t necessarily mean this disparagingly, because for me it was worth, for others I know it was not). I think it is true that sometimes we even seek this constancy in things that we don’t like. The saying “Sometimes the enemy you know, is better than the enemy you don’t”, speaks to situations where people are willing to put up with something or somebody that is unpleasant simply because they have become used to it and at least know how to deal with it.
I think it is easy for vigilance to get caught up in the idea of routine, and maybe it sometimes is, but even that is not necessarily a bad thing. Those with autism depend on routine as a way of making sense of their world, and I don’t think we are all that different. Most of us need
some sense of routine, because our lives are always in conflict between change which brings uncertainty and those things that we can count on which makes us feel safe. Routine can sometimes be very helpful when facing adverse moments in life. Having something to focus on, having something that you feel you need to do, however mundane the task, might be can help us from falling into depression or becoming apathetic. I can’t speak for all people, but I have observed this being helpful for others and certainly for me when I was going through adversity.
Recently I was in New Orleans for a conference and the keynote speaker for the conference was talking about how her spirituality has helped her and that she feels like God works through her because when she looks at the things she has done, she doesn’t know how she has been able to do it. She feels like she herself is not capable. I think it is easy to understand why many people feel that way. I think for most things we do, we are used to seeing the immediate result of a particular action. But the quality of being vigilant is one that builds a wisdom and experience over time. I liken it to a river that erodes to make a canyon. If you could talk to the river at any one moment in its life it would be unaware of how much it is doing. Miniscule fragments get washed away every day however. I likened the speaker’s statement to asking this river a couple hundred thousand years later to look around and see what it has made. I think the river would be surprised at the deep canyon it has made, since each day it only perceives a little less rock underneath and at its side. The weathering of rock by the river is a story of vigilance and I think that we can easily fall into the trap of not realizing how great things are possible when we remain vigilant over long periods of time.
I think it’s important to remember that cause and effect occur over various timescales. Rewards of our labors and actions may often take years to come to fruition. So, although our actions may seem to be of no importance in the short term, over the long term the benefits can be remarkable. Keeping this in mind helps me find more value in the mundane, and gives me the courage to push through when life seems difficult. But like all things in life there is still a balance to be found, so don’t be afraid to make adjustments when life teaches you another lesson. The extreme consequence of vigilance may be stubbornness and we must also be vigilant about not developing too many bad habits. 😉