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Wisdom and Fortitude

The most mature among us both remember their success and folly and exercise the will and action to improve in the future. They learn from their mistakes. We call such people “mature” and hold them in some well-earned esteem. We try ourselves to be more like them and tell our children to use such people as a worthy example. We offer the mature some special place in our society.

     Wisdom is the memory of what either worked or failed in the past. Most of us acquire wisdom though our own experience, though some very fortunate few are able to gain wisdom by witnessing the example of others. These people seem rare, though. Expect to work hard for your own wisdom.

     But wisdom can only do us any good if we’ve the will to apply what we know towards future decisions. This is where fortitude comes in…and the ability to recall what did not work—or what did—and either do it, or something like it, again or not at all. Fortitude can be trained. We can learn to strive. We can be taught to preserve through difficulty and to select and follow the more difficult path for good reason.

     Wisdom typically comes of age while fortitude is gained of practice. This may explain why sports are such a popular activity for children, especially team sports, which couple youngsters with an experienced coach who has been given some license to train, dominate, guide and control the members of the team. In this way we couple the hard-won wisdom of the coach with malleable minds and bodies of the young such that they are trained to listen and obey, trained to understand the commands of their elder and to follow-through despite pain or personal discomfort. This is how the wisdom of the older and the fortitude of the younger create something greater than either the older or the younger could be on their own. Wisdom and fortitude then come together to create the quality of maturity in the teamwork and behavior of the group. Maturity then is won through a coupling of experience and raw, energetic life. We see the same effect with the military, where the apparent wisdom of the generals is executed on the battlefield through the disciplined fortitude of the soldiers on the field. Wisdom and fortitude come together again to create seemingly more mature action through the group.

     Maturity is realized in individuals when we give up our base wants to our remembrance of past consequence and exercise our will to follow-through towards the better selves we know and want to become.

Becoming the person you are

     The battle of who we will become is always fought and won now. Never tomorrow. Never some years hence; it is always a matter of now, and of who we decide we are under the current challenge, fortune and circumstance.

I'd be the someone I want to be
If ever tomorrow

     There is never any chance of becoming anyone other than who we are right now. Put it off another day and the distance between our current self and our imagined potential is one day further. For in youth our feign character is something less than play-acting; it is a more real type of pretend; it is the putting on of a costume of sorts—clothing and attitude that somehow nearly always fit. There is a magic to this endeavor when we are young and can wear and look right in almost any persona we choose to carry. This is because youth is malleable to its own will, and can bend or even safely break in the direction of its own effort. So, put on your new self early. Wear your best self while you are still young. Never mind any sense that this isn't really you...for you will soon be nothing else. But beware putting off the charade.

Don't delay even a day.

     Waiting is death. For who we dream we are will die if we fail now to be that person. We will instead become the person we are. Always the person we are. Irrevocably the person we are. Never anything more than what we choose—or settle—to be.

Beware the not being.

A gaze that is straight

     Your gaze never once appeared to waver. Was this due to your youth? Was that it? Was it the strength and courage of small age and ignorance that powered your relentless, awe-inspiring gaze? Was it something deeper? I suspect not. None of us has any superpowers to be sure. We are all falling, failing lights in the night sky - brilliant at once and then fast-fading back into deep night. Yet, you put on a good show early on. Sure, it was an authentic display—and I certainly did the same thing, don't we all? But I know there is a deeper and still straighter gaze to be had. But this one comes not of youth but of age, and experience, and the effort of becoming—and not just being—strong.

     “To go down with the ship" is a saying we use to describe the fortitude of someone who is resolved to carry through with worthy principle even unto death. This trait is a virtue, and one imagined most in those who have lived long enough to acquire something more to live for than life itself. This is something it takes time to genuinely gain, though it is possible to pretend in earnest. Nevertheless, it takes time to gain that deepest of forward-looking sight, that at once sees what is ahead while also taking in the periphery; that sees both the worthy object before us as well as the horrors at either side, and yet hardly flinches in either outward or inward aspect or resolve.

A straight gaze
A broad perception
An object in focus

     Mature sight then is gained when we both remember clearly the past and maintain the fortitude to stay the path of virtue. We must also enlist reason to help us discern the way and to help us pick our forward course before setting out slowly across the landscape of life options. This quality of character and resolve cannot be easily had in youth, though its appearance can be taught to, and emulated by, the young, and may become genuine with practice. Yet trained fortitude does not become something more until we have the wisdom of experience–borne of honest reflection and the power of reason - to discern clearly where our energies and endeavors should best be applied. This is when our sight become most clear...and when the depths behind our eyes grow still and deep, becoming pools of quiet resolve, seeming perhaps bottomless to those who have never held their breath to swim down during youth, to plumb the darkness below to see—or feel—their way to the seeming bottom. To lift handfuls of cold, grainy sand from below. And to know that there is no such thing as bottomless, or forever, or eternity—just the now that demands our attention, and which draws our gaze towards its quite worthwhile and always immediate present. The down which we can never clearly see, but yet which experience, and resolve cause our eyes to make the clearest attempt to perceive.

Minding a sore foot

Our talks during youth were so full of optimism. Our youth spoke only of life, and of the optimistic promise of decades to come which must last forever. Everything was an eager uphill climb then. We were to climb with strong bodies and youthful minds. There was no summit we could not attempt and master. And the sun would always rise again on tomorrow. Though we knew this was a lie. We believed the lie was true. At least we kept muttering the lie under our breath. We uttered it honestly. We really meant it...though we knew it wasn't true. We'd live forever as youth. We'd see a thousand tomorrows and a thousand more. And we'd always be strong. And our minds would always be keen. And we'd always have the satisfaction of being willful and young and adventurous and new. And we'd never die like the rest. How could we? We thought we were immortal. Though we knew this was not true. We lied to ourselves then. Like we lie to ourselves now. Only you no longer lie. You can no longer lie. It's just me who lies.

     But I have my better moments... Though I can't talk to you about them. Heck, if I tried, the you who died would quickly dismiss my words as the nonsense fear of an old man. But it's true. I do have my better moments now when I see beyond the illusion we once agreed was always real, though we always knew better. It's the old age that does it. Not being old itself, but becoming infirm. It's the developing weakness of limb. And it's the aches which I feel here and there. And the ease with which I injure, and the long time it then takes to recover. And then I injure the same place again so easily. And then there's my mind...and my inability to command thoughts or recall words. What was that? What was that thing or word I wanted to say just now? Why is my thinking so unclear? I'm becoming like an old boat developing leaks. There's water seeping in here and there throughout the hull, and I've got to mend the spots and man the pump. It's becoming so much work to keep the thing afloat...and I know the work has just begun. Worst of all is the fear. The sense of no longer being immortal. I always knew that was true, of course; but it was fun playing the game of forever when I could, like pretending to be a superhero kid and running around the yard with a sheet tied around my neck as a cape. "Look at me! I can fly!!" I'd shout to everyone. My kid friends all laughing and playing the same games themselves. None of us feeling any genuine pain yet. Our bodies too strong and brand new to betray our invincibility. But it's the pain at last which reminds the best. The pain which comes when youth and middle age have worn off. The little "ouch" in my ankle when I try to walk straight. Or the sore in my elbow from swimming too much. And I know I've got it easy compared to some. Some of my contemporary friends are in real pain. They truly suffer. I'm not there yet, thank goodness. But I feel for them. For all of us the illusion has worn off. For some of us, much later than others. And I know that my current ease won't last. My turn is coming. But what of it? What to do with this fact of a failing body and a sputtering mind? What a pain this is. But also, what a challenge. What a worthwhile challenge... Maybe the best challenge or opportunity yet.

As my vision fades,
And the pain in my foot swells;
I'll reckon the state of the sun,
Above the sea.
Another fine sunset,
Another fine day

     The thing that came easy in youth was to accept and enjoy my good health. And now, I can just as easily do the same with infirmity. Why not? What's so hard about accepting pain as well as strength? Sure, it's nicer to be strong? But isn't it stronger still to accept and manage pain? Am I not a better man - and a better example to my daughter - when I see what I am, and what I am becoming, and make adjustments to my life in accord with these truths?

     And so, my foot hurts... It's that little twisting pain above the arch of the left foot which feels like something's bending too much, like a tendon is pulled too hard and might break. It makes me limp. I feel like an old man limping this way. Damn it. I don't want to feel–or be seen limping this way–like an old man. I'm only 55, almost 56, too young to limp. Damn foot. Damn age.... But wait, why am I letting myself get caught up in such thoughts? How are these to avail the limp? And look...while I was fussing I nearly missed the sun going down - the very thing which I came to the beach now to see. As I was walking on the shifting sands my foot ached and I almost missed the sunset for my dwelling on the pain, and my disappointment in growing old. I'm glad I caught myself before I missed the show. I'm glad I decided to stop walking and just look at the sea. There goes the sun... Just past those clouds out there by the islands. Look at those slanted rays. And the way the light reflects red off the hills behind me. Maybe I'll sit right here and give my sore foot a rest. This patch of sand is as good as any. I'll just move aside this bit of dried seaweed and I'll take this piece of plastic litter with me back to the trash when I go. Who said I need to walk all the way to the water's edge? What rule is that? The sunset is now after all. And I'm here after all. And my foot aches and I'll take a rest. Right here. Right at this spot. I'm no young whippersnapper you know. No sense running all about while the sun goes down. Those days of upset haste are mostly done. I know better now. I know to protect my weak foot. And my weakening body. And my mind which has begun to fall–not fail, so much as fall. So, I'll sit here on the warm sand while the light goes out on today. And tomorrow I'll know myself better and remember my true place and circumstance in life. I'll mind my sore foot. And I'll sit where I can to watch the sun go down.

The road into night

Such a long hike to get here, now. The place where I set out from is invisible beyond those distant hills, a memory of setting out from a fine place into the wild. Why did I ever leave...for this waste? Why does every young person depart Eden into the east? We all go because we must, not due to exile, but because innocence is Original Sin. We are born with a failed compass pointing deep; directing us from the admonitions of fathers and mothers towards distant places seen shimmering against the desert horizon—places far from here, anywhere but here. And so we set out, hardly prepared; to walk at midday, confidence our only ration, youthful strength a feign, withstanding shelter below the sun. And we walk then alone into the open; emerging, maybe; broken and torn some years later where the mirage is found to be a dune of sand. Our garments are tatters, our face sallow and strained, our confidence replaced with fear and understanding—the remembered awareness of our fathers and mothers—and so we sit then beside some thin, trickling oasis, whispering "home" and vowing never again to roam.

Looking back,
I can see better
The uneven ground
And dangerous footing
Which the foresight of youth
Did fail to reveal

     But to some the journey has still just begun. We look back towards our footsteps lost in the blowing sand, and we smile faintly at the revealed brevity of each moment so far passed. Our torn garments remind us of the folly of cherished things, and the memory of our loved ones—now so far removed—caution us to never assume companionship is forever. What a journey this has been...from that place in our youth to this seeming waste. How much we have lost along the way which we did never need. How well reduced the burden of excess and superfluous self, what a lean and fortunate mortal we have become…

     Where to next for the well broken traveler? Into which new horizon will they tread? How much less might we become along the way, and what more might we leave behind on the road into night?

What a good, unseen road.

Such a worthwhile passage of life.

To walk alone among ghosts

I was never very afraid of the dark, or the things which come out after the sun goes down, to wander, and slither, and creep, and fly across and over the darkened landscape around me—hunting prey with wide eyes and snuffling noses and darting tongues and feelers probing for scent and a lead to the kill. Though I sometimes must take a deep breath before I go out alone among them, I can always nevertheless set out into the dark by myself, without a light, or a map, or a compass or even a knife—and never a flame!—to wander amidst the beasts through lands I never know and to places I never see. I've always been one to go alone into the night. Always with fear, yet never quite afraid.

There are ghosts which haunt the mind—
Drifting thoughts and fears and musings
Phantom and vapor of confusion
Let them haunt,
Let them drift,
Let them be...
These will not dissuade my purpose
To find, carry and achieve
What is good.
I will rise always and do my work—
Deathly afraid...
Yet I work,
Yet I dream,
Yet I live.


     But yet, I am sometimes afraid of the inner dark landscape of my own mind, populated with the things I do fear, and the thoughts which sometimes seemingly haunt my inner world: floating things, drifting things, hovering things which bob out there in the dark mental mists, mostly out of sight, but sometimes coming close to let me see, or to try and rub up against me if they can. These non-things are something I do truly fear, as they know me, and exist seemingly to remind me of ideas and memories which I no longer wish to know, but which cannot be unknown again; or to cause me to worry over things which may come to pass, perhaps unfounded or ungrounded in what is real—persisting nevertheless through my wish to fuss and my sometimes feign forecasts of doom. I am tentative to walk into such a night. And I wish instead to return to the daylight of my being, or to some inner shelter to start a campfire within my mind—a place protected of localized light—to push back the darkness of my more dismal thinking, and blow away with illumination the floating things which come to mind when I am weak, and tired, or fed up. These are challenging inner places to be sure. Lands where I would rather not go. Periphery I do not wish to see. Adventures I do not want.

     Perhaps though, I can be strong within like I seemingly am without? Maybe I can find muster for the inner journey as I always do when setting out alone into a dark and unknown wild? A strength to do the same where my thoughts become night, and where the chill wind of confusion and fear blows deep into the place where the terrible seeming things do float and glide? I think I can. In fact, I know I I have already begun doing this for several years now—when I recognize suddenly where I am in my mind, at that frontier of peace becoming night, and I choose to still the fretful inner dialogue to silence, and I cease my shuffling inner feet, and I look up with confidence to peer like a curious cat into an abominable night, and I perceive the moving mists out there just beyond, and the seeming downward slope of the land, sensing the colder climes below, and hear perhaps even the howling of the dread thing from beyond where I should never seek, and I set out now...I step once, and I step again...and I move now without fear into and THROUGH my own inner night—

     I walk then alone into the darkness of my empty place within, without any map, or compass, or even a knife—and never a flame!—to wander amidst the beasts through lands I never know and to places I never see. I will always be the one to go alone into the night. Always with fear, yet never quite afraid.

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