Satyam vada; dharma chara

Speak the truth; never withdraw from doing good deeds.

When I was young, I thought being a good person meant performing acts of heroism.  I thought it was something that happened only in spurts — spaced-out episodes featuring some very visible and memorable triumph of will over temptation.  Only now am I starting to see that being good does not work that way.

True, there are acts of heroism, and they are undoubtedly important.  But these are (for lack of a better analogy) mere icing on the cake of goodness.  These are the tip of the iceberg really.  At its core, goodness has a wholly different character.  It is quiet, and endlessly patient, and (to be quite frank) a little boring.  It is wholly content with itself.  It adjusts to changed conditions instantly, and will endure against repeated setbacks indefinitely, making hope where none should be.

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A cake that’s all icing is no cake at all.

Think of it from another angle: what is it that makes us sad in life?  Is it the big, visceral mistakes?  It can certainly feel that way when we let ourselves fixate on one or two missteps,1 but in truth, most of our suffering springs from simple, everyday actions: Not spending enough time nurturing bonds with the people close to us;  Not putting in the effort that our studies and our work deserve;  Indulging in undeserved pleasures time and time again, thereby acclimating ourselves to a way of living that is not sustainable and not conducive to happiness; &etc.

Each action we take ripples through our lives whether we notice it or not.  Each moment that passes leaves the water level in our proverbial “glass half full” altered in one direction or the other.  Because our great tests are few and far between, and because they’re not as important as we think they are, we are naturally inclined to forget that these everyday moments are what really define us.

Allow me to demonstrate:

A constant source of my frustration in my life is a concept that, as far as I know, has no name.  I suppose Murphy’s Law comes close to capturing the idea, but it’s not a perfect fit.  The idea that you never truly appreciate things until they’re gone is also close, but it’s really just a subset of what I’m getting at.  My frustration is that the best time to do the right thing is when it’s hardest — if you wait until it’s easy to do what’s right, you will never take advantage of what you have.  I know I’m guilty of living this way.  Every (dating) relationship I’ve ever had held near-infinite potential for happiness, had I put time and effort into making it work.  I should have dug down into what it is about each girlfriend that was unique and rare and wonderful, and taken that seed and nourished it with all of my heart and all of my strength.  Instead, I slowly grew less and less appreciative of the love as I was receiving the longer I had it, and became a worse and worse custodian of that seed.  Only now that the door is shut can I look back and truly appreciate the potential that was there.  Only now that the seed is dead can I see the beauty that was buried inside it.  Being a good boyfriend is easy at the beginning when you’re intoxicated by the newness of it all; it’s being a good boyfriend when things get hard that truly makes the relationship blossom into something meaningful.

I see this facet of life everywhere — not just in relationships.  Careers work the same way: our natural inclination is take our good situations for granted, and to let them wither when we should be using all our might to nurture them.  Consider the tale of my friend James.  During the years leading up to the ’09 Financial Crisis, James spent his time not developing new skills or expanding his network, but instead just coasted along at work and spent the bulk of his time and energy on frivolities.  He bought an expensive house with an expensive mortgage and lived an expensive lifestyle.  When the recession hit he was laid off and had to scramble to find work.  In short order, James became an expert on hustling.  He networked like no other, learned to market himself well, and launched an awe-inspiring job search.  Unfortunately, James’s efforts bore no fruit for months and months simply because no one was hiring, and those who were were absolutely inundated with applications from overqualified candidates.  James’s attempts at networking and hustling were flawlessly executed, but they failed time and time again simply because James was operating in an environment where opportunities were scarce and an attitude of skepticism and fear pervaded everything.

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Musical chairs: very fun as a kid; much less fun as a job-seeking adult.

In James’s tale, I see the makings of a theoretical framework.  Humans are predisposed to be lazy when times are good and to work hard only once things go south — yet the return on our efforts is highest during the good times and essentially nil during the bad times, so we should be doing just the opposite!  It’s a very counterintuitive but important lesson: the busier things get, the more important it is to work as hard as you can.  Yet inevitably, as we get busier and busier at some point we take for granted that things will always be booming and we convince ourselves that it’s fine not to work 100%.  We adopt an attitude of complacency.  And inevitably, the boom turns to bust — ironically, often as a direct result of the pervasiveness of that very attitude.

Is it becoming clear now?  Being good is not something that happens in a moment.  It is not the scene (so often featured in romance movies) where one throws caution to the wind and make a huge sacrifice for the sake of love — although that is certainly a beautiful and important gesture.  Being good is sitting with your wife of 20 years and having the courage to spend every ounce of your willpower looking past her flaws (we all have them) and thinking of ways to bridge your gaps and create new ways to connect and share happiness.  Being good is having the courage to push yourself to the absolute limits at work — even during the times when it looks like you can get away with just coasting, or when it truly feels like you deserve a break.

The vexing part about all this is that coasting and taking a break can seem perfectly logical, especially in the heat of the moment. This brings me to my next point:

If you let logic dictate your actions, you will never be good. Logic is not our friend — at least not here.

It is human nature to rationalize reasons to be lazy, to rationalize reasons to leave someone you love in search of novelty, etc.; so our only hope is to put logic to the side.  Our only hope is to understand that the logic factories in our brain were not built with goodness in mind; thus, when it comes to day-to-day decisions, we need to substitute in a different driver.  So who should that driver be?  I would hope by now the answer is clear.

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Dharma.  That is my driver.  It is its own why — because it has to be.  If you have a “Why?” that is any more specific than “being good is the right thing to be,” it will not work.  You will create cracks in your armor that faulty logic can squeeze through to infect you and throw you off track.  You have to convince yourself, each and every moment of your life, that doing good is right, even if you can’t see (in any concrete way) why exactly that is.  I’m not going to say you need to have faith (although faith is probably the best way to get here) — but you need to have some way to put a never-fading fire under yourself that keeps you always burning to do good.

So far, I have spoken of the good as if it were a chore — and indeed, it really is at times.  But it’s also so much more than that.  There is a beauty to goodness — not the superficial attractiveness of pleasure, but a deeper, more refined beauty.  It is old — perhaps the oldest of the virtues — but it carries itself with almost unimaginable grace.  It runs counter to some of our deepest-seated instincts, yet it is the most natural thing in the word — calming like the sea, majestic like the mountains, and rich like the forests.  Best of all, it has one wonderful feature that I haven’t yet discussed — it is self-perpetuating.  It is said that carrying a dead body is more difficult than carrying a live one, because live bodies will at least shift to accommodate your task.  The good is heavy, but it is a live body.  When you pursue it with your whole heart, it has a way of meeting you halfway — even if you falter, even if its weight seems unmanageable, somehow the two of you will always find a way to make it work.  And goodness is contagious — once you truly commit yourself to the good, you might be surprised how the people around you react, and how much easier it then becomes for you to do what’s right.  There’s no deeper connection, I think, then the bond that forms after two people have proven to each other that they are both, with every fiber of their being, committed to doing what they believe is right.

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Dharma chara.  Do the right thing always.  Not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.  Not just when it seems important, but when it seems meaningless too.  Not just when you think you have it in you, but when you think you can’t hold on any longer and that the world itself might come crashing down around you.

One obvious question remains: how does “satyam vada” (“speak the truth”) fit into all of this?  That, my friends, is a tale for another time.  I think we have more than enough to chew on for now — especially with Chewbacca and company having just hit theaters.

(Oh, and if you’re worried that living with that level of discipline requires you to be some sort of robot — you’re right, but don’t worry, being a robot isn’t all that bad!)

— TAL

1. Humans are biased towards overemphasizing salient events during the decisionmaking process.

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