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Things I aspire to on the path of becoming who I really am
In Annapolis, underneath hallowed ground, sits a space equally sacred. Walking in through the doors that lead down below the Naval Academy Chapel the first thing that jumps out is the marble: marble everywhere, more ornately decorated than Westminster Abbey. Above is a monument to God. But this is a monument to service. And the effect is striking.
The tomb of John Paul Jones is pure marble, black and white to look as if it has aged in the depths of the sea. Four brass dolphins bow below the coffin, pointing to the names of the ships he commanded inscribed on the marble floor. Black columns rise from the marble floors to flank his body, themselves holding up the marble ceilings and marble walls. The subdued lights, the flags, the statues along the side, the space above, and the prominent inscription on the walls: “I have not yet begun to fight” are all exquisitely designed to raise your spirit and fill it with a message. Here is someone worth aspiring to.
Physical monuments are important. They inspire us to aspire to more. They remind us that our heroes and ideals are worth celebrating — are worth humbling ourselves to. That we can be more, and that it’s worth devoting ourselves to that pursuit. Standing in the shadow of a towering memory, a new path is illuminated. And we are stretched to imagine what we could become.
This memorial was the first on my journey from a boy to a man. The ideal of service grabbed me, as it had for generations of young men and women before me. And after me. John Paul Jones’ bravery to fight inspired my own confidence – maybe even my pride – to fight the good fight. Against all odds. Against popular opinion. For what is right.
I was a boy who thought he was becoming a man, who needed something to hold on to, who felt deep in his bones that there was something more to aspire to. That monument was perfect. It was a life worth emulating – a link in a long lineage of great lives. But it was too small.
Aspiration, like the tree of liberty1, must be refreshed regularly.
That memorial, as powerful as it was, couldn’t live up to the life I wanted. No single person could. The realization that there was no example was terrifying. It was lonely. At the same time, it was ennobling.
As I became truly alone, I started reading literature again. I read words, but I gathered inspiration, much as I had the first time I walked into that monument. By collecting stories, characters, and poems, my monument to the life I wanted to live took shape. These aspirations are the building blocks. This is my monument
To always honor the fight in me
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
–Invictus by Williams Earnst Henley
Invictus reminds me that we all have an unconquerable soul. It inspires me to never bow my head to the burden of life, but to fight. To practice taking a hit so that I know I won’t wince or cry out in pain. To prepare myself to defend what’s worth fighting for. And to know beforehand what that is.
To balance confidence with humility
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too
–If by Rudyard Kipling
This poem hangs outside my son’s room. It’s a gift from my father, and one I carry for my children. When I read this, I know that I won’t always be right. But I aspire to have the confidence knowing that everything I do is the best I can do. When I make a mistake, I want to know. I want to be allowed to learn from it. Let people doubt me; it won’t ruin me.
To savor every moment of this life
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
Life isn’t a series of great moments in a montage. Teacher after teacher reminds us that life happens in the small moments. And to the best I can, I want to fill those moments with the best of myself.
To be in the world, but not of it
Father Jacobus was not only far more than a scholar, a seer, and a sage; he was also a mover and shaper. He had used the position in which fate had placed him not just to warm himself at the cozy fires of a contemplative existence; he had allowed the winds of the world to blow through his scholar’s den and admitted the perils and forebodings of the age into his heart. He had taken action, had shared the blame and the responsibility for the events of his time; he had not contented himself with surveying, arranging, and interpreting the happenings of the distant past. And he had not dealt only with ideas, but with the refactoriness of matter and the obstinancy of men.
–The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
The character of Father Jobus inspires me. I don’t ever want to be so specialized that I can’t see the rest of the world. I want to remember that a life well lived is a life in the world, not necessarily of it. Ideas are important. The physical world is equally important. And what would life be without other people? But I aspire to work where the three intersect, with people on ideas that matter to them and to the world.
To truly know what I know. Not superficially, but at the core of my being
You have distilled a kind of world history to suit your own tastes. It consists of nothing but the history of ideas and of art. Your history is bloodless and lacking in reality. You know all about the decay of Latin syntax in the second or third centuries and don’t know a thing about Alexander or Caesar or Jesus Christ. You treat world history as a mathematician does mathematics, in which nothing but laws and formulas exists, no reality, no good and evil, no time, no yesterday, no tomorrow, nothing but an eternal, shallow mathematical present.
–The Glass Bead Game
This indictment from Father Jacobus hits home eighty years after it was published. I don’t want to know something intellectually, but to know it with all my heart. To understand its essence. I don’t need to be the first to learn something, but once I learn it, I want to master it.
To know that “I am”
[Verse 1:] The seeker is he who is in search of himself.
[Verse 2:] Give up all questions except one: ‘Who am I? After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The ‘I am’ is certain. The ‘I am this’ is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.
[Verse 3:] To know who you are, you must first investigate and know what you are not.
[Verse 4:] Discover all that you are not: body, feelings, thoughts, time, space, this or that; nothing, concrete or abstract, which you perceive can be you. The very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive.
[Verse 5:] The clearer you understand that on the level of mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker will you come to the end of your search and realize that you are the limitless being.
–I Am That by Maurice Frydman
One should love God mindlessly, without mind or mental activities of images or representations. Bare your soul of all mind and stand there without mind.” “When you come to the point when you are no longer compelled to project yourself into any image or to entertain any images in yourself, and you let go of all that is within you, then you can be transported into emptiness, silence.
– Meister Eckhart
So much of life has been a struggle to understand who I am. But when I left behind my examples, I realized I wanted to take the question seriously. I had to ask for help, in person and through the lives of those who knew God. And when I did, I got my first clues. I knew I wasn’t my job, or a label I defined for myself. But I didn’t know what else I could be. On this path, I aspire to truly know who I am.
To live as my own guide
We each have a particular way of shaping ourselves in the world. To take on someone else’s conversational style and to keep repeating other people’s questions as if they were our own is to exhaust ourselves. It doesn’t matter if it is the thoughts of Socrates or Susan Sontag. Read and admire, but then go back to first principles and ask the question yourself, in your own way. Dare to disagree.
― The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship by David Whyte,
He had reached the point at which great men must leave the path of tradition and obedient subordination and, trusting to supreme, indefinable powers, strike out on new, trackless courses where experience is no guide
— The Glass Bead Game
Living a life of purpose means leaving behind a single guide. It means trusting our own instincts. It takes courage and the confidence to disagree with tradition, with wisdom. I want to find out what is right, not what was right for someone else. I understand I may stumble, but I want to push myself to those limits. It’s worth it.
To live truthfully
If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
―On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
King’s advice on writing applies equally to life. Writing truthfully means seeing the world as an outsider. Living truthfully means having the courage not to fit in. It means knowing the grimy shadows as much as the polished light. And I don’t aspire to a place in the sun, but to the truth.
When the time comes, to die a good death
He was not sick, and his death was not so much a matter of dying as a form of progressive dematerialization, a dwindling of bodily substance and the bodily functions, while his life more and more gathered in his eyes and in the gentle radiance of his withering old man’s face.
Those few, when they had put themselves into the proper frame of mind before stepping into the little room in which the Master sat in his armchair, succeeded in entering into this soft iridescence of disembodiment, in sharing in the old man’s silent movement towards perfection. They stayed for rapt moments in the crystal sphere of this soul, as if in a realm of invisible radiation.
–The Glass Bead Game
We can either run from death, or we can prepare for it. Either way, we can’t escape it. And I don’t want to. The end of a good life is a moment to celebrate, not to mourn. I want to prepare for my time with grace, dignity, and serenity. And I want to return to nature. So that one day, my children can find inspiration in the grass under their feet, the burbling stream, and the tree bark against their back as they sit at my memorial. It may not be marble, but it will be mine.
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Thank you toand for many conversations and inspiration that helped me see what was important in this piece and push through my resistance to share it.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It was a call to remind the government that the serve people, and a reminder to the people that they need to keep their spirit of resistance. Of demanding more. It feels very appropriate to living a good life. https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/tree-liberty-quotation/