Sunday, August 7

Finishing Well

Edmund Burke said of the persistence of Wilberforce, “The greater the goal, the greater the labor required.” James Q. Wilson, a professor of management and public policy, makes the same point—not about Wilberforce or English political history, but about life in the here and now. He says, “The best things in life invariably cost us something. We must sacrifice to attain them, to achieve them, to keep them, even to enjoy them.”

That is one of the most important lessons we can learn in life. It is the message that we know we ought to instill in our children: patience, commitment, diligence, constancy, and discipline will ultimately pay off if we are willing to defer gratification long enough for the seeds we have sown to sprout and bear.

A flippant, shallow, and imprecise approach to anything—be it sports or academics, business or pleasure, friendship or marriage—is ultimately self-defeating. It is not likely to satisfy any appetite—at least, not for long.

The world is indeed full of seemingly harmless little distractions; humorous and silly things; banal and trivial things; things which take the path of least resistance; things which come cheaply and easily; things which may be abandoned at our earliest convenience. According to the poet Edward Lear, we ought to “beware of all such things.”

Now, that is not to say that we cannot have fun; that we cannot ever let down our guard; that we are compelled to be continually intellectually vigilant; that we have to hang on to every cause with bulldog tenacity. But as Lear explains, “It is all a matter of proportion. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with temporal things, fleeting things, transitory things, or silly things. It is when the shallow completely supersedes and supplants the serious that we get into trouble. When what people want now replaces what people need always, then the truth is obscured.”

Sadly, that is a lesson very nearly lost on us in this odd to-whom-it-may-concern, instant-everything day of microwavable meals, prefab buildings, bottom-rung bureaucracy, fit-for-the-market education, knee-jerk public misinformation, and predigested formula entertainment. Thus temporary expediencies supersede permanent exigencies.

As a result our pragmatism is no longer particularly pragmatic. Our practicality is no longer very practical. We can’t wait for anything. We lack the kid of stick-to-itiveness that enabled Wilberforce to endure for all those years—and ultimately to prevail in his great cause.

The race really does go to the tortoise and not the hare. It is perseverance that ultimately will win the prize, not knowledge, not talent, and not connections. It is that undying tenacity that sets itself on the end, that finishes the race, that completes the task, and that fulfils the responsibility.

As Calvin Coolidge sagely observed, “Nothing can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are overwhelmingly powerful.”

So, how do we train ourselves to finish what we start? How do we cut across the grain of our instant-everything culture? How do we subdue our got-to-have-it-now appetites so that we can undertake our tasks with forbearance and resolve?

First, we must come to the realization that such a virtue is hardly easy: Thus, o see things through to the end demands courage. Though we tend to admire courage, we often have to admit that there is in it an unexplainable admixture of boldness and madness in it. Concerned with our own health and welfare, we find it more than a little extraordinary when anyone is willing to risk life and limb for the sake of others—much less for the sake of some principle. Indeed, we have become an age with a dearth of heroes. Bravery has practically become a forgotten virtue—a lost cause. Nevertheless, its allure retains as strong a grip on us today as it has each of the many generations that have preceded us.

According to C.S. Lewis, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy, which yields to danger, will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful until it became risky.”

We will have to come to the place where we realize that to see things through, to finish what we start, and to fulfill all our responsibilities is going to require genuine valor. We will have to face down tremendous obstacles, fierce opposition, jeering criticism, and perhaps even physical danger.

To finish well will cost us something. It may cost us everything. Just ask anyone who has ever run a marathon or competed in a triathlon. Starting is easy. It is finishing that is hard. It is finishing that requires blood, sweat, and tears. It is finishing that requires courage.

To see things through to the end also demands wisdom. We admire knowledge. We covet understanding. But, we tend to be more than a little suspicious of wisdom. It is a notion that seems to carry with it the taint of dusty ideals and musty aspirations. It has the appearance of advanced age—and all the out of fashion traits of reticence, hesitation, caution, recalcitrance, and anachronism that goes with decrepitude. Even so, throughout ages past, men and nations have cherished wisdom as more that mere wishful thinking or hopeful yearning. They have acknowledged its vital role in stable societies and healthy cultures. And they have comprehended its essential role in enabling us to finish what we start.

The great English etymologist, novelist, and essayist Samuel Johnson said, “There are, indeed, many truths which time necessarily and certainly teaches, and which might, by those who have learned them from experience, be communicated to their successors at a cheaper rate: but dictates, though liberally enough bestowed, are generally without effect, the teacher gains few proselytes by instruction which his own behavior contradicts; and young men miss the benefit of counsel, because they are not very ready to believe that those who fall below them in practice, can much excel them in theory. Thus the progress of knowledge is retarded, the world is kept long in the same state, and every new race is to gain the prudence of their predecessors by committing and redressing the same miscarriages.”

Likewise, Shakespeare wrote, “This is a practice as full of labor as a wise man’s art, for folly that he wisely shows is fit, but wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.” If we are going to finish the race set before us, then we will not only need to run with endurance, we will need to run with discernment. This is precisely why William Butler Yeats argued that, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. Of such is wisdom.”

To see things through to the end also demands work. According to Richard Weaver, “Exertion, self-denial, endurance, these make the hero, but to the spoiled child they connote the evil of nature and the malice of man.” Alas, most of us do not have the stuff of heroism—such virtues have been bled out of us by our modern devil-may-care culture.

Indeed, most of us do not much care for work. We complain about it. We chaff against it. We will do just about anything to get out of it. Nevertheless, we probably would all reluctantly admit that nearly everything in life worth anything at all demands of us a certain measure of labor and intensity. And though this might appear at first glance to be a plight of woe and hardship—perhaps a deleterious effect of the Fall—it is in fact a part of the glory of the human experience. The good news is that work is good. Work is the means by which we achieve, at long last, our destiny. It is the means by wich we attain to our calling.

And the even better news is that the lost cause of diligent labor, strenuous industry, and purposeful calling may be reclaimed, restored, and reinstituted—as the example of so many wise men and women who have gone before so ably and aptly demonstrate.

The remarkable Helen Keller once said, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along not by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” Every time we simply put our nose to the grindstone and do our work, every time we put our shoulder to the plow and undertake our labor, every time we push through our exhaustion to the end of the day, we move the world along with our tiny pushes.

It was for precisely this reason that Teddy Roosevelt asserted, “I wish to preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease but the doctrine of the strenuous life; the life of toil and effort; of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace but to the man who does not shrink from danger, hardship, or from the bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

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