January 26, 2011

Working Lunch; Or, Where There’s A Will There’s A Way

A kindly American professor once told me over lunch of his struggles through the system, finally to reach a place of security, contentment, and intellectual fulfilment. Having escaped the Eastern Bloc when a youngster, he had sought enrichment – of the mind, principally – in America. He found the going hard; money difficult to come by; basic expectations unexplained (for we tend not to explain to outsiders that which is normal to us). He set his sights on becoming a professor, making a promise to himself not to sell out to the first offer, but to cultivate his mind even if it meant going hungry. He had constructed for himself an end. As for the means, he was open to anything. A year without pay, but in the right academic environment, ultimately paid off. Encountering the best minds of his generation, he conquered his intellectual fears, and thereafter soared.

We live in difficult times, but then, everyone has always said such things. At times the things we want to do seem improbable, if not impossible. The temptation is to give in, let it go, raise the white flag. But let us wax Churchillian for a moment and consider the merits of declaring, ‘we shall never surrender’. Giving up and giving in to fear are much the same, and we are the worse for capitulation. Lying down to be walked upon, the invited footprints will slowly bruise the spirit and crush the soul. That job you are chasing; that girl, or boy; the feelings of security and contentment, for us and for our families; the escape from boredom: these are wants with which most of us can identify. They are worthy pursuits. A level higher, our ways of life; our freedom, to speak and to act; and our beliefs: these things we may not think about so directly, but they are given tangible form in the material and emotional desires of the former list. To give up on the one set because they are too hard or too expensive, the process too fearful, or too risky, is to jeopardize the latter. To give up is to let down the guard of vigilance that is the basis of freedom. When we give in to fear we are weak; when we are weak we are vulnerable; and when we are vulnerable the strong will smash us. It is precisely when we sense our weakness that we should muster courage. This is virtue. It is fortitude in the face of our own perceived limitations, or at the risk of our bodies and minds.

Another way of saying this is ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. The will, much less the phrase, does not ward off failure. Rather, it suggests that failure should not be an act of volition. Moreover, the way is often not the along the intended route, but we might well resolve that come hell or high water we shall get where we are going in any case. The important part is not to resign before material difficulties. If our object is realistic, our nerve should hold steady. We may not be able to conjure up a job that isn’t there, or persuade a love that doesn’t care. But should the job, or the love, come along, we shall not have ourselves to blame if we do not prevail.

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