In the first step we cut out things that do not belong.
Do you domineer conversations? Cut it out.
Does your humor make others uncomfortable? Stop it.
Did that social faux pas need to happen? Never again.
In the second step we add things that do belong.
Can I be more encouraging to others? I should start that.
Could my jokes be funnier? Let’s improve them.
Would my generosity help people? Time to give.
The twostep of maturity is a complicated dance. As in the real twostep, our feet feel awkward moving in the same direction at the same time. It takes time and experience to learn. But you know what is even more awkward? Moving one foot forward, again and again. Likewise in life it is easy to fall into phases of cut-cut-cut or add-add-add.
When we keep eliminating things, but do not replace them, we become empty inside. Instead of becoming a fuller, more alive person, we become the hallow shell of the lesser person we once were. Remember that stoic, emotionless guy you met in 8th or 9th grade? That could have been you. It was me. Being in control of your emotions does not mean killing them. The mistake is that to mature is to cut out bad emotions. Sure, do that. But without replacing them with better emotional states, you have not grown.
The same is true of seasons of adding. We can add all kinds of new character traits or habits. But in time we will have accumulated the baggage of old ones that should have died, hard. When I receive harsh criticism that seems out of place for “how mature I am” generally, this is the problem. In total I have grown, but in this one area I have not eliminated the old way.
We dance the awkward step-step-restep until, by their grace, someone comes by to help. They show us how to dance life. By watching them, we see new things to cut, new things to add. This, by the way, is mentorship. Teaching others by example how to grow.
Enter David Hume.
Hume wrote a book in the 1740’s called “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” The book focuses on the limits of what we can know. In the first chapter, he includes a great meditation on what it means to be a human being:
•a reasonable being, and as such he gets appropriate food and nourishment from the pursuit of knowledge; but so narrow are the limits of human understanding that we can’t hope for any great amount of knowledge or for much security in respect of what we do know. As well as being reasonable, man is
•a sociable being; but he can’t always enjoy—indeed can’t always want—agreeable and amusing company. Man is also
•an active being; and from that disposition of his, as well as from the various necessities of human life, he must put up with being busy at something; but the mind requires some relaxation, and can’t always devote itself to careful work.
Here are three different dimensions to our lives: thinking, socializing, and acting. In each dimension we bump into limits, at some point. We can’t know everything, we can’t always have good company, and we can’t always work. Our minds are finite, and as Hume will argue later, knowledge cannot be certain. (I’ll also add that socializing can drain us of action, and action can drain us of socializing. So those limit each other.)
It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable for the human race, and has secretly warned us not to tilt too far in any of these directions and make ourselves incapable of other occupations and entertainments.
‘Indulge your passion for knowledge,’ says nature, ‘but seek knowledge of things that are human and directly relevant to action and society. As for abstruse thought and profound researches, I prohibit them, and if you engage in them I will severely punish you by the brooding melancholy they bring, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception your announced discoveries will meet with when you publish them.
Moderation is not something that we, as Americans, usually care about. If something is good, gimme as much as possible. If something is bad, keep it away. But seeking moderation is still helpful in all kinds of ways.
There is a difference between values and virtues. A value is something that you always want. Joy is a value — if I can have more, I’m taking it. Hope is a value. Peace is a value. Love too. Each of these is, itself, good.
Virtues can be overdone. Patience is a virtue because you should not be patient with everything. We exercise patience when a child throws food; we do not express the same patience with an adult. Courage is also a virtue. You can be too “courageous,” which we call recklessness. Running into battle without a shield is not courageous. It is reckless. So we need to have enough courage, or we are a coward. But not too much courage, or we are reckless.
David Whyte is one of my favorite poets. He says maturity “is not a static arrived platform, where life is viewed from a calm, untouched oasis of wisdom.” I agree, though for different reasons than Whyte meant. We seeking moderation in life, but our margin for error is thin. A little too much, or a little too little, and failure is inevitable. Maturity is not achievable because moderation is elusive.
The golden mean.
Knowledge, socializing, acting — Hume says that these are all virtues, not values. We can only want them in moderation, never too little, never too much.
He ends with a summary:
Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man.’
Now that is a quote for a philosophy major.
My first take-away from Hume is the obvious one: don’t be a Brain. Have a brain, and use your brain, but do more than that. Feel things, be sociable, create something, and be adventurous. Live a little.
The other, more circuitous take-away is that you must add and subtract to find this balanced life. If you cut-cut-cut out the negative sides of yourself, then on exactly 50% of virtues you will err. Likewise with adding.
We dance the twostep of growing older because in it we grow closer to the balanced life.