What Makes A Good Human?: Vigilance

I start out my journey with something I have specifically blogged about: Vigilance. I sort of attempted this project about a year and half ago, but at that time I hadn’t really formed a list clearly in my mind.  So if some of this looks familiar you may have read some of it before, but I wanted to arrange my argument a little differently and have also added some other things here that I think are relevant.  I also want to note here that I have decided to highlight text where qualities are mentioned that I also think are important but fall under the umbrella of vigilance

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 Gandhi intended it that way.  Instead I think the quote refers to the importance of vigilance.  For most of us 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.  Stop doing them for a length of time and you will see how difficult and/or unhealthy.  So I think Gandhi recognized this aspect of our lives and that by practicing vigilance we are learning that not everything we do has an immediate impact and that we are learning that life takes perseverance. Gandhi himself spent most of his adult life trying to free Britain from independent rule and uniting his people.  Affecting change, even small change, is usually a slow process that takes a lot of work.  The importance of perseverance also turns out to be a central tenet of many religions although it is often ignored for the more magical aspects of the religion that concern the divine and the supernatural.  But you can find passages in most religious texts that speak to the importance of doing good deeds over the entire course of one’s lifetime as the best way to get closer to God and ensure yourself the best possible future after you die.  Whether that be in some heavenly plane or through a positive reincarnation.  And while I don’t subscribe to these ideas of divine rewards, the fact remains that no religion claims that it easy to get to paradise.  It’s hard work and it takes time.

Vigilance also speaks to consistency.  Children for instance need consistency in behavior from their parents.  Relationships require trust and that demands a certain constancy of character so that you feel you can trust and rely on each other.  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 it, 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, something that you feel you need to do, however mundane the task, can help us from falling into depression and give us purpose.   I can’t speak for all people, but I have observed this being helpful for others and certainly for me when I was facing adversity.

Western Rim of the Grand Canyon

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.  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 accumulates those experiences and over time builds wisdom.  In science, the field of geology teaches us excellent lessons about vigilance.  I liken the speaker’s revelation about what she accomplished to a river that erodes to make a canyon.  If you could talk to the river at any one moment in its life, if it was aware at all of the difference it was making each day, it would tell you only that it was eroding  miniscule fragments of mud and rock.  However, if we could then ask 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 was in, since each day it had perceived little to no change.  The speaker dedicated her life to social change.  Should she really be surprised at all she has accomplished?  And this is an important point about life is that we often focus on the end result instead of paying attention to the journey.  We might idolize celebrities for their achievements and want to be like them, but few of us ever think about the enormous amount of work that goes into those accomplishments.  We see a star sports player but do not see all the training, practice and exercise they do.  We revere an excellent actor but do not see all the rehearsing and studying that goes into what they do.  No matter how naturally talented that person may be their achievements are the result of vigilance.  Thus vigilance also helps remind us about the process by which something happens and not just the end result.  There is no Grand Canyon without the daily process of erosion.

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.  The most important lesson from vigilance is that it gives us a better sense of time.  Thus vigilance also teaches us about patience.  Even waiting is a form of vigilance. Keeping this in mind helps me find more value in the mundane, and gives me the courage to push through when life seems difficult.

If there is a dark side to vigilance it is the quality of stubbornness.  Our energy in this life is finite and we have to also recognize those moments that what we are doing isn’t working at all and make adjustments.  Sometimes to achieve a certain goal we have to rethink the process.  How to avoid the pitfalls of stubbornness and refusing to change will hopefully become clearer as move down my list of important qualities.  Those qualities also require vigilance which is why I felt that vigilance was the best place to start.

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19 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Human?: Vigilance

  1. And this is an important point about life is that we often focus on the end result instead of paying attention to the journey.

    This is an excellent observation. I know in my life, and in the lives of others, when we consider where we are and what our goal might be it seems insurmountable. We are either too impatient to be vigilant or too overwhelmed by the amount of vigilance it might take to get there. It often cripples us and we stay with the devil we know because it is safe and sometimes even easy since we know what we’re dealing with.

    A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

    Lao Tzu

    What you said about most, if not all, religions promoting the idea of perseverance and vigilance also brought to mind this scripture:

    Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.

    Luke 16:10.

    If you can’t be vigilant and dependable in the little things, the things that seem unimportant, you’re unlikely to be any moreso in much more seemingly important matters.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comments Ruth!

      “If you can’t be vigilant and dependable in the little things, the things that seem unimportant, you’re unlikely to be any moreso in much more seemingly important matters.”

      If there is one thing I won’t tolerate Ruth is people finding the words I was trying to say in a more succinct and precise manner. lol Excellently said and that to me is the essence of the Gandhi quote as well. The things we do on a daily basis, even if they seem like chores and unimportant…are important.

      And Lao Tzu’s still work today except that, the single step for me is onto an airplane or into a car. lol Sorry, couldn’t help wonder what Lao Tzu would think about that! lol But indeed the essence of the quote still has the same meaning today as did then and is a good one. Western society, particular in North America is a little more impatient than other cultures, but I think in general we are always going to be impacted by our own mortality in terms of wanting things to happen sooner than later, and within our lifetimes. In truth many scientists’ work went unfinished or incomplete to only be complete by others later. We must also recognize that vigilance has value even beyond our lifetimes. Despite the fact that we would like closure on our aims and goals I find it comforting that we can send ripples towards the future even when we are dead and gone.

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  2. Yet another superb post. Gosh, I am so glad you brought this to my attention. As I shared with you before, I get behind on my reader, and sometimes people I follow will post several post a day, which causes my reader to move rapidly and then I miss posts. Anyway, what stood out the most was also what Ruth highlighted:

    “And this is an important point about life is that we often focus on the end result instead of paying attention to the journey.”

    I couldn’t agree more.You may or may not know this, but I am a fan of gemology, but not necessarily for the reason you may think, although I do love sparklies. 😉 One of my favorite gems are diamonds, but not for the reason you may think. Damn De beers. I write in one of my posts :

    My life’s experiences have been the skilled hand that cut away the ore; shaped and polished me, allowing for the light of others to enter in and reflect back.

    And I quote from C. JoyBell C:

    “Diamonds are held under tons and tons of pressure, extremely high temperatures of fire and shuffled under shifting of tectonic plates, for a long, long time! Yet when they come out from there and are put on display for their beauty; does anybody stop to evaluate the diamond based upon all the shit it’s been through and say “Remember that disgusting hole it used to be in? I bet it was hell in there!”

    No, people don’t remember where a diamond has come from; they just see the beauty of it now. But it wouldn’t have become so beautiful, you know, if not for all of that! So why should we look at other people, or at ourselves and evaluate them/ourselves based upon their/our pasts? Shouldn’t we forget that? And only see the beauty that is in front of our eyes? Whatever it was, it made you beautiful! And that is what matters!” ― C. JoyBell C.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great quote! And I’m glad to find out about one of your nerdy hobbies. I can see the fascination with gems, especially the art and craft that goes into it. My wife certainly likes her gems as she is a geologist, but only when they are embedded in rocks and naturally occurring. Lol But the point made in the quote is excellent and I would extend further to say that the beauty of something is often enriched by an understanding or at least an appreciation for the process that got it to that stage.

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      1. “My wife certainly likes her gems as she is a geologist, but only when they are embedded in rocks and naturally occurring.”

        That is awesome. What a small world. One of my favorite places to visit (which I did often) when I lived in the Upstate of South Carolina was the Mineral and Lapidary Museum in Hendersonville, NC which was about a 35 tp 40 minute drive.

        “the beauty of something is often enriched by an understanding or at least an appreciation for the process that got it to that stage.

        Nicely stated.

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  3. I also love what you said here:

    “If you could talk to the river at any one moment in its life, if it was aware at all of the difference it was making each day it would tell you only that it was eroding miniscule fragments of mud and rock. However, if we could then ask 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 had perceived little to no change.”

    Brilliant insight. Living in a microwave society, we need to hear/read more messages like yours, and no, I won’t join your cult, 😛 , but I am a fan: 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How about if you don’t join the cult, but you live on the commune? Just help us pick weeds from the zucchini patch or something. 🙂

      In the class I teach about time, part of the resistance to ideas of uniformitarianism (that is the principle that the present is the key to the past) hinged on expanding our minds to accept that the Earth was far older than anyone imagined. Even amongst the geologists and physicist who tried to calculate the age of the earth failed to be even an order of magnitude away. Only Darwin was the closest because of how long he felt it would be necessary for the process of evolution from single celled organisms to what we have today. And I think this is an important part of our inability to collectively move forward is that the shear magnitude of people, the vastness of space and time is all so hard to comprehend for many. It throws our myopic view of the world out the window. But considering on average most people never go beyond 100 miles from where they were born and we rarely see anyone live more than 100 years, it is at least understandable why we fail to see the value of slow processes over long periods of time.

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        1. Lol…You could have multiple husbands and you could teach all the neurobiology classes for all the children. I promise there will be no talk of spaceships that will cone and whisk us away to paradise! 😀

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            1. Well I didn’t want you to think that I only wanted you in my cult to be one of my many wives. It’s a cult based on love, freedom, and science…and all rules have to go through peer-reviewed scientific investigation. It will be in Colorado so even the “weeds” will be welcome. 😉

              Liked by 2 people

  4. Love this!! And when you said routine helps you through adverse moments you are so right!! In December when I found my tumor in my thyroid and had to have my thyroid out- the thing that got me not thinking about whether the tumor was cancer and if I needed radiation and all the unknowns of my condition was my breast pump!!!! LOL 😮😂 I’m so serious- I focused on the routine of maintaining milk production and caring for my infant and pumping while I lay in the hospital bed after surgery- lets just say not only did it help me not be negative- but my obsession with milk and my boobs were cracking up the hospital staff 😆😆😋 They were probably like this chic could have cancer and she’s worried about her damn boobs and milk LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comments Linden!

      LOL…I don’t know my wife was just a worried about her boobs and milk post pregnancy even without the possibility of cancer. There is a huge biological drive I think for mothers to feed their babies, so that’s good one to get lost in when you need to focus on something else. I know for me it was just knowing I had to get up and go to work when my wife and I hit a big trouble spot in our marriage and it looked like we were going to split up. And I have a colleague who said when she was diagnosed with cancer the daily routine of work helped her a lot as well. I think the value of vigilance here is that you allow yourself to be distracted by those daily things and it prevents you from dwelling on a negative thing for too long. When I’ve been depressed I’ve been mentally exhausted, feeling like I’ve been thinking about the same thing for far too long. Being active, doing things, no matter how mundane actually becomes restful, gives purpose, and can help rejuvenate our energy for dealing with difficult emotions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes the threat or thought of cancer didn’t make my obsession with nursing it just strengthened it LOL but on a happy note- it was a follicular adenoma (benign) so I was lucky just to get it out especially the fact it was the size of a golf ball and choking me 😳😁 I just have to take synthroid the rest of my life but I’ll take that any day over that damn tumor lol! I’m glad you and your wife worked through the issues and are good now! And as far as finding something mundane to make it through things like depression- it is an excellent way to cope and overcome I agree! I started running and training for a half marathon after the birth of both my girls for several reasons. One was to combat post partum depression and the other was to obviously lose my baby weight lol. But running everyday became therapy and an escape- and the more I ran- I felt accomplished and it took my mind off my hormones and I sweat them out too!! 😄

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Your quote from Gandhi is my favourite. I find it very encouraging that the mundane aspects of life, although in isolation may have little value, on the whole have exceptional value, shaping my character, maintaining my health, keeping or adding value to my house, providing hope to others, and on and on. It also keeps me from falling into what I view as the “live each day like it’s your last” fallacy. Although I understand the motivation of this idea I find it extreme and unpractical.

    Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” talks about the “10 000 hour rule” which says that for anyone to become extremely proficient in something requires about 10 000 hours. It’s easy to look at someone that is highly successful (using whatever standard you like) and think that he or she got there by being lucky or making a few critical choices but overlooking the vast amount of work and diligence that went into becoming successful.

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    1. For some reason this never showed up on my notifications, so I apologize not replying. Thank you for your thoughts on this and I completely agree ” I find it very encouraging that the mundane aspects of life, although in isolation may have little value, on the whole have exceptional value, shaping my character, maintaining my health, keeping or adding value to my house, providing hope to others, and on and on.” The idea essentially that little acts can achieve great things. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Cloud Atlas but it’s a very well put together story that looks at this very thing.

      I don’t think I’ve been blogging 10,000 hours yet. But eventually I’ll get there. lol

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  6. Pingback: What Makes A Good Human?: Love | Cloak Unfurled

  7. Pingback: What Makes A Good Human?: Curiosity | Cloak Unfurled

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