One of my earliest memories was of a class play back in the first grade called, “Baltesroe and the Mistletoe. " It was an old Nordic story of a man who was invincible to his foes with the single exception of mistletoe. For some reason, whenever he was near mistletoe he lost all his protective powers. It was like Superman being exposed to Kryptonite – it made him weak and vulnerable. I played the part of Baltesroe and remember how terrific I felt to be “bullet-proof. " The other children would pretend to throw all sorts of weapons at me – spears, rocks, arrows – but they would all bounce off of me like bullets off of Superman. In fact, that’s exactly what I felt like – Superman.
But when mistletoe was introduced into the scene everything was different. All the weapons injured and eventually destroyed Baltesroe. I felt betrayed by the insignificance of a single piece of mistletoe and the improportionate impact it had in harming such a great and valuable person. I was troubled by this turn of events. How could this happen?
As a first-grader, I couldn’t fully understand the lessons this story had to teach. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the depth of meaning it offers. I learned that it’s the casual, daily, mundane choices, events and experiences that inevitably weave the totality of my character; it’s the little things that build me up and expand my personal power or that take me down and destroy both character and body. The apparently insignificant things in your life, perhaps the things you feel you don’t even need to pay attention to, are those that create the opportunities for either success and significance or downfall and disgrace. As Sir Winston Churchill remarked, “character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones. " The same is true for the disintegration of character.
I also learned that much of any personal sense of security we may possess arises not from an honest examination of our lives, rather from the lack of such self-scrutiny. If Plato was right that the unexamined life is not worth living, then there are many people alive today who are merely existing but not living. They may feel safe and secure in the limited existence that their fear of living in abundance has created. But such an impression is an illusion. Any feeling of invulnerability stemming from shunning self-examination is empty, devoid of any real power to remain unaffected by life’s “slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. "
Thoughts of the ancient Greek hero Achilles may have crossed your mind when reading about Baltesroe. Achilles’ mother made a pact with the gods that he would be invulnerable if she dipped him into a sacred river. She did so, but failed to get the heel wet where she had grasped him. And so, in the course of time, an arrow found its way into that unprotected heel and he was slain in battle. In the Bible, there is a story of an immense statue symbolizing a great culture. It was constructed of gold and other precious metals and hardened materials. But its feet were made of clay. When the statue was subjected to stress (when the culture was tested), the feet crumbled and everything that rested on that foundation came crashing down into obliteration.
We like to think of ourselves as being in charge of our own destinies – and we are to a large degree. But when we focus exclusively on the strength of our own devices, the cleverness of our own direction and the prowess of our personal traits we become more easily blinded to the things that can sabotage our best destiny.
For whatever reason, we all have a dark side. It is an intrinsic part of who we are as human beings. Although it can never be completely overcome, its deleterious effects on the self-image can be effectively managed through self-discipline. Discipline begins and ends with the awareness and acceptance of the fact that you have a dark side. Many people, desiring only to acknowledge the positive, deplore the truth of their existence as containing an inner darkness and seek to simply ignore it, perhaps even denying its presence altogether. When you turn your back on this elemental aspect of yourself because you think it would be easier to do deny it than to constantly manage it, you actually create the conditions that invite its power to multiply and manifest in your life.
The Lesson of Starry Night
An excellent example of this is found in the magnificent painting by Vincent Van Gogh, “Starry Night. " It depicts a bucolic setting of gentle hills dotted with serene cottages surrounding a charming church capped by a stunning steeple. The starkly clear evening sky above is filled with a spectacular stellar display of swirling stars bursting with abundant light and a quarter moon that outshines them all. But there, just to the left of center, looming in the foreground, is something which is quite incongruous with the rest of the painting and which stirs disturbing emotions. What is it? It is not readily recognizable. Its swirling pattern can be easily discerned and yet it is dark and lifeless in its appearance. It is an overt invasion of the peacefulness of the place and an apparently intentional intrusion in the perfection of the painting. Why would Van Gogh want to “ruin" his otherwise perfect masterpiece by defacing its idyllic serenity?
That’s exactly the point! Where in your life is there any enduring perfection, any uninterrupted serenity that remains undisturbed by life’s vagaries and vicissitudes? Van Gogh is consciously proclaiming in “Starry Night" the universal truth of human existence: there is a place at the core of life where the coin comes together – where good and evil co-mingle; where light and dark are inextricably interwoven; where confidence and insecurity join without seam; a place where hope and despair, joy and lament, faith and doubt combine to form the essence of human being. Here is the source of life’s paradox. This is not so much a painting of serene, sacred space as it is a portrait of the predicament in which all human beings find themselves.
“Starry Night" was completed while Van Gogh was resident in the mental asylum of Saint-Remy, 13 months before his self-inflicted death at the age of 37. The picture he had of himself was the picture he was painting on the canvass. His internal picture proclaimed that, if life is to be both enjoyed and have any ultimate meaning, it is absolutely necessary to live in the tension of a two-sided existence knowing that, when one side was predominant, the other side was not far away.
Van Gogh had come face to face with the flip side of his existence and captured this experience in a burst of passionate painting that put life into a proper perspective: the only way that life can be lived in peace is to acknowledge the perpetual presence of that which we do not want to admit. Life must be lived in ambiguity and uncertainty in the faith that, in the long run, it has significance and meaning, even when individual experiences may not appear meaningful.
He was confronting his demons and his irrational insistence that everything be perfect in his life when in fact nothing ever was. This was, no doubt, a contributing factor to his mental instability and anxiety-filled life. His painting was one of his attempts (in the last 70 days of his life he completed 70 works) to have a cathartic experience of facing and finally constructively living with the two sides of his being.
Wholeness is living in the tension of the coexistent opposing realities at the heart of life. We get out of balance and fool ourselves when we try to live as if only the good side exists or as if we had completely overcome the dark side. In fact, we do more than just get out of balance. We actually create the circumstances out of which the dark side can better and more easily emerge into the world through our own actions.
The Wisdom of Accepting Imperfection
At the bottom of any life should be the goal of becoming wise, not being perfect. Wisdom accepts imperfection and tolerates darkness because it has learned from both whereas perfection demands nothing but the light of goodness to exist in its world. When darkness inevitably intrudes into its “perfect" picture, being unwilling to acknowledge and therefore deal with its presence, perfection is slowly driven mad by its anxiety and anger at that which challenges its self-image.
The Power and Significance of Daily Decisions
Being mindful of the many routine choices you make on a daily basis is the beginning of wisdom. The manifestation of wisdom, not perfection, in your decision-making results in a peaceful presence in the world and a hopefulness undaunted and unfettered by external strife and disorder.
The cumulative consequence of these seemingly insipid decisions is the creation of the framework and dimensions of the soul. These choices create the strength or weakness of the effectiveness of and joy in your life. As you make increasingly more decisions that are in harmony with your values, the strength of your foundation increases. At the bottom of your life are feet firmly rooted in the personal discipline of self-knowledge and self-control.
As you make more choices that compromise your sense of personal propriety and ethics it becomes increasingly easier to make such decisions in the future without regard for conscience. The foundations of your soul weaken. At the bottom of the life you’re building is sandy soil. Your feet are made of clay.
An old American Indian story describes very well what happens to a person’s soul when he continually makes decisions that go against his better judgment. At the moment of birth, inside every person is an invisible triangle whose razor-sharp tips touch the soul’s interior. Each time the person makes a choice that is in conflict with his conscience and moral values the triangle makes a single complete rotation. The friction of the sharp points against the soul causes sharp pain that recalls the person to moral conduct. But the intensity of the pain occurs only the first several times the triangle turns. After a few spins the points begin to dull so that the next few turns don’t cause as much pain. After a few additional poor decisions in how to conduct one’s life, eventually the points of the triangle wear down completely so that when it spins it can no longer be felt. It’s as if it weren’t there at all – or had never been there in the first place.
You are creating your life’s content and power right now, even by reading this article. Your daily choices are of vital importance. Pay attention to the little things and how you deal with them every day, because they are the things that, over time, create the meaning and significance of your life. The things you do and the choices you make every day will always determine who you are and what you’ll be able to do when it’s too late to do anything about it.
But it’s really never too late to get to the bottom of life by making a choice today regarding what kind of foundation you want to build from this day on. Once you do this, your foundation will be strengthened as you make your choices one at a time based on the person you want to become and not just on the person you are now.
Ken Wallace, M. Div. , CSL has been in the organizational development field since 1973. He is a seasoned consultant, speaker and executive coach with extensive business experience in multiple industries who provides practical organizational direction and support for business leaders. A professional member of the National Speakers Association since 1989, he is also a member of the International Federation for Professional Speaking and holds the Certified Seminar Leader (CSL) professional designation awarded by the American Seminar Leaders Association.
Ken is one of only eight certified Business Systems Coaches worldwide for General Motors.
His topics include ethics, leadership, change, communication & his unique Optimal Process Design® program.
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