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.