Friday, March 11, 2011

The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul

‘'The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul.” – David O. McKay

A decade ago, prominent thinker and New York Times columnist David Brooks walked across the nation’s elite college campuses and found a strange phenomenon. A generation of highly capable and self-disciplined students concerned about doing good and changing the world, but lacking utterly a concept of dualistic (good vs. evil) moral universe around them.

When I asked if Princeton builds character, they would inevitably mention the honor code against cheating, or policies to reduce drinking. When I asked about moral questions, they would often flee such talk and start discussing legislative questions. For example, at dinner one evening a young man proposed that if we could just purge the wrongs that people do to one another over the next few generations, the human race could live in perfect harmony ever after, without much need for government or laws or prisons.

As the admissions officer Fred Hargadon puts it, "I don't know if we build character or remind them that they should be developing it."…One sometimes has the sense that all the frantic efforts to regulate safety, to encourage academic achievement, and to keep busy are ways to compensate for missing conceptions of character and virtue. Not having a vocabulary to discuss what is good and true, people can at least behave well. It's hard to know what eternal life means, but if you don't smoke you can have long life. It's hard to imagine what it would be like to be a saint, but it's easy to see what it is to be a success.

The compensation works, to an extent…The Princeton of today is infinitely more pleasant than the old Princeton, infinitely more just, and certainly more intellectual and curious. But still there is a sense that something is missing. Somehow, in the [old] world of moral combat, the stakes were higher, the consequences of one's decisions were more serious, the goals were nobler. In this world hardworking students achieve self-control; in that one virtuous students achieved self-mastery.

Brooks finds a dissident philosophy professor, Robert George, who at last gives a cogent diagnosis of the problem.

"The idea that it is possible to do wrong sitting alone in your room, even if you don't cause another person any harm, George said, is hard for modern Americans to comprehend fully. The problem is that this idea is at the heart of understanding what it means to be virtuous."

This is a concept that means a lot to me. As I have honestly sat down and looked at the state of my heart over the last few years, I have found a lot of good desires. And a lot of not-so-good ones. I find within myself feelings of goodwill, a desire to understand the world around me and change it for the better. But I also often find feelings of impatience, of anger, of lust.

I often find that the most important decisions I make are small decisions that have to do with these feelings. To show love, by listening with genuine interest to a companion's monologues about snowboarding, because it's important to him. To demonstrate self-mastery and the importance of time, resisting the urge to pull the blankets over my head, and starting the daily routine punctually.

In the world's eyes, if I didn't do these things, I wouldn't be showered with shame or scorn. I'm not Bernie Madoff, swindling people out of boatloads of money; I'm not Eliot Spitzer, cheating on my wife with high-priced call girls.

And yet, if I cannot emerge victorious in these day-to-day spiritual battles, my chance for a peaceful and happy life will be far reduced.

I love this quote from Henry Emerson Fosdick. His central thesis is that, in our day-to-day doings and relationships, if we will not "deny ourselves" in the cause of a godly life, we shall deny ourselves that godly life.

"If we will not deny ourselves bad temper and a wagging tongue, then we shall deny ourselves friendship—God pity us! If we will not deny ourselves a loose and unchaste life, then we shall deny ourselves self-respect and a conscience fit to live with. If we will not deny ourselves those habits of thought and life that keep divine fellowship away from human hearts, then we shall deny ourselves God.

“In short, if we will not give up evil for good, we shall surely give up good for evil."

Once again I note: "The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul."

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