Lately I find myself drawn to meditating on this quote from a Robert Louis Stevenson book, “You cannot run away from a weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?”
I have always believed that both a person’s greatest strength and greatest weakness spring from his or her essential character, that which is the essence of who we are and what defines us. If with our daily actions we commit to our weaknesses, we allow our weaknesses to define us. So too, with our daily thoughts. Or perhaps more simply put, that to which we commit daily, defines us.
But it is no great revelation to say we should commit to our strengths. And sometimes, in order to act upon our strengths, we must understand first the roots of our own weaknesses that bind us.
A great deal of self-help literature revolves around boot-strapping, positive thinking, saying “yes!” and grabbing your life by the horns. I have seen this ethos of positive affirmations, visualizations, and the like preached and applied by many people in my varied experiences over the years, from sales seminars to acting workshops. They are powerful, productive, and have very practical applications. But they also have tremendous flaws, because they often have no answer for an inevitable question for a fair percentage of the lot: “What happens when it doesn’t work for me?”
Here’s how I’ve seen it play out over and over again:
Step 1: The positive message is received and digested. It is powerful, intoxicating, and transformative.
Step 2: The person starts the follow through, starts to apply the message, goes for the win.
Step 3: The person falls flat on his or her face. The person fails.
Step 4: The person continues to try, and continues to fail, or moves directly on to the question, “Why have I failed?”
Step 5: The person realizes that the answer implied by their guide to achievement is, “It’s your fault.”
The blame can be crippling, incapacitating. And that is often when people give up. Giving up, really giving up, eventually leads to a place many of us know: depression. (This may not apply to all of you but bear with me. The principle I’m getting to is universal.)
Any one of you who has faced depression knows what it is like to wake in your bed, and feel as though the most difficult thing you can imagine is to rise up and live another day in the world. All you truly want is to find the strength to do so; and then you find yourself quietly give up, close your eyes, and will the darkness to envelop your mind again and pass on into sleep.
So what do you do then? What are you supposed to do if it takes everything within you to rise in the morning, much less look in the mirror and repeat a set of mantras to convince yourself that life is better than it seems, and tells you that your discontent is your own fault? How does someone who is depressed, or someone who has been knocked down, how do we find the strength within to overcome? What do you do?
Anything that moves you forward.
Living is not about a magic formula, and I don’t believe that question has a single answer. It is not one way that works for all. In my own life I have discovered a variety of principles and perspectives that, faithfully applied, work. Some are transformative, but most are simply practical. Applied in combination, they work to get you through the tunnel of that midnight of the soul, and to the dawn.
But at the end of the day, they all boil down to just finding anything, any one thing, that moves you forward, forward, no matter how little, no matter how small, as long as it is forward and something you can build on. And at the root of that movement, what is required is a small but significant choice to commit to that forward movement.
For all commitment is faithful, and yields a result, whether that commitment is conscious or unconscious. Sometimes we make conscious decisions to commit to a course of action, or to certain principles or ideals. But when we do not make conscious commitments, we make them unconsciously with every one of our choices. At the root of every action lay a choice, and where a choice is made so too is something committed.
This begs the question: how do we commit? Where do we find that first commitment, the first cause for forward motion?
The answer isn’t in an affirmation, by yelling “Yes!” or anything of the like (though those methods have their time and place). Paradoxically, it is in the opposite, by giving up a little further, by letting go a little more. Whenever we find our circumstances so overwhelming that they paralyze us, we can find commitment in the moment we give up our need to know, give up our marriage to certainty and expectation as to the conditions around us.
When you need to find commitment, being certain about the conditions you are in is the greatest obstacle you could possibly face. The only answer is to give it up.
It seems like the longer we live, the greater the danger we face of locking into viewing the world a certain way. You need that to function, to a certain extent, the adding on of layer upon layer of experience. But the flipside of certainty is the absence of wonder.
If we can give it up, if we can accept the idea of not knowing, then at that moment the world becomes new. Whatever obstacles, imaginary or real, at that infinitesimally small moment, nothing exists but possibility—and more importantly, nothing lay in the path of that tiniest commitment to move forward.