“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” *
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I think we all have an idea of the world we would like to live in. And we know how we’d like other people to be. It can be both inspiring and frustrating to engage with a vision like that. Reality is not necessarily close to our ideal and we ourselves are not always aligned with it. However, again and again I’m astonished and grateful for the peaceful, interesting, and wealthy environment we are living in. Especially being a woman, it’s amazing how much freedom, possibilities, and safety we have in the modern West compared to other cultures and times. The different conversations I’ve had with survivors of World War II have taught me that even within our own families, times were very different not so long ago.
There are many different cultures and even within our own culture there are nearly as many different ways of life and thought as there are people. Nevertheless we manage this complex and diverse modern life surprisingly well. We all have some kind of structure or ethics that supports us in this. Have you ever wondered where this comes from?
Our own different modes
To begin with, we all have ideas about how we would like to act; and yet we find ourselves in different modes and function accordingly. To mention just a few:
- We have a way of being we might call “our normal self” that we mainly identify with, the person we are with friends and at work.
- If we are overwhelmed, in stress, or exhausted, our focus gets narrow and our attention might be sharp but only oriented towards a small part of reality. With that more fixed attention, we act differently, and might not notice what doesn’t serve us right in the moment.
- If we are suddenly shocked by something, we might get scared or start to defend ourselves automatically. This can lead to situations where we are surprised at what we do.
- In the evening when everything is done and we are calm, relaxed, and maybe even content, again another side might show up. In this mode we can listen in an especially open way, engage in talk about anything and everything, and be more creative, funny and curious.
Although we clearly act differently in different situations, isn’t it true that we value some modes more than others? It may seem “obvious” to us that some ways of behaving are better than others, but actually it’s not so obvious. Animals behave as they behave and we don’t notice them asking questions about it. Not so with us. For us, “right and wrong” are important matters, and even if we don’t have a set of Rules to Live By written down and hung on our wall, we have a lot of inner and intuitive knowing about these matters. The ground rules—amounting to doing as little harm to others as possible—are pretty clear, but the fine tuning happens along the way.
Clarity and simplicity
Have you ever wondered why this is so, both the basic rules and the fact that they need to be fine tuned depending on the situation? Where do ethics actually come from? Wise people around the world seem to have a clear sense of what will help or harm, regardless of how the world is behaving around them. When we watch such people speak and behave, we can see that their special vision can make life especially simple and clear. The better we can see what is good and maybe even healing, the more beneficial our activities can be. The more deep and authentic our orientation towards goodness is, the more spontaneous and simple our good life can be. I think it’s especially beautiful if we have found an ethical orientation that we love to act from, even if nobody sees us.
Ethics are not an easy subject to talk about, because easily we can become trapped in “right and wrong” thinking. But ethics is deeper than that. Ethics is very visceral and earthy—we hurt when we see others are hurt—yet at the same time it is connected to our deepest vision of who we are and who we wish to be. In Buddhist ethics there is the concept of actions that are “skillful” or “unskillful.” Skillful in what way? Skillful in leading ourselves and others towards our deepest potential as human beings. In order to act ethically, it’s very helpful if we have the openness and patience to be curious about why others are acting the way they do. Maybe what we see helps us to act better ourselves or we see something beautiful modeled by another person that we’d like to follow.
One of the specialties of our human life is that we have the power of choice and can find role models and visions to orient ourselves upon. This gives us a clear direction and a lot of inspiring energy for our days. As Saint-Exupery said: we feel inspired and motivated to do the necessary steps if we have some vision of where we are heading. The vision does not need to be like a photograph, in high detail; in fact it’s probably better if it isn’t: “endless immensity” is how Saint-Exupery put it. But from it comes a strong and clear inner orientation and integrity. For me it’s always a great joy when I meet people who have such vision.
Enjoy a week with openness for authenticity and inspiring vision.
*P.S: I know this is the second time
I’ve used this quote, but I like it so much!