Sometimes in life it is very easy to know what one does not want to do. I have spent much of my life with fairly clear understanding of roads I did not want to go on. I knew very early on in life that I did not want to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs or promiscuity or a wide variety of other means. This sort of attitude of being contrary to something even plays its role in decisions as mundane as trying to figure out where to go for the Feast of Tabernacles. For example, I knew this year I did not want to go to Bend, not because the place itself was bad, nor because I did not have friends I would enjoy seeing, but largely because the last two feasts there were so deeply harrowing that I decided it would be better not to torment myself again by going to a place where the complications would be likely to ruin my sleep and greatly damage my own ability to enjoy one of God’s Holy Days that we are commanded to enjoy.
Yet knowing what one does not want to do is of little help in determining what one wants to do. Sure, there are options that are foreclosed, but our lives are full of many options, and we need to be able to know which roads to take and move in a positive direction, rather than simply focus on what we do not like. Often, if we wish to achieve what we desire in life, we must be willing to put up with what we do not like for a while, because the end result is worth the unpleasantness. Yet in order to succeed in life, we need a vision of the good that we wish to find, and not merely the evil we endeavor to avoid. It is one thing to, as a child, make a private oath to God that we will not hurt others as we have been hurt, but it is a different and more difficult matter to be an agent of growth and love and encouragement in the lives of others, for we can deeply hurt without malice or intention to do so, and even our best efforts to live can only complicate our lives and the lives of those around us.
Virtually everyone has something notable about them that we can learn from and that we can appreciate, no matter how unpleasant the total package, or how poorly those talents and abilities are developed or used. It is tempting, if we spend our lives trying to overcome the disadvantages of a savage childhood, to simply wish to be the inverse of what we experienced, but that still leaves us determined by our past, unable to assimilate the virtues of those we could learn both what to imitate and what to avoid. We can only do this, though, if we have both a willingness to appreciate the complexity of other people as well as an external standard of virtue to follow that is not dependent on the behavior of others. If all we have is a relative standard to judge, we are left with judging others by our own biased perspective, with adopting the biased perspective of someone else, or with developing in deliberate opposition to someone’s biased perspective, in all cases ending up with different mixes of good and evil in ourselves, for our positive and negative models will always be flawed so long as we are dealing with flesh and blood humans and not divine absolutes.
Yet even dealing with divine absolutes does not rid one of the need for appreciating complexity, for these same absolutes involve tension and complication. We must love and desire justice, and live justly, but also to be merciful and gracious, and not to treat others with the severity that they may deserve, knowing that we do not want to be treated with the severity that we deserve. The virtues we seek to emulate are not only personal and internal, but they have repercussions and ramifications on the outside as well. Our lives are not only, or even mainly, for ourselves, for even if we must grow and develop and overcome to do what we were meant to do, so too our growth is for a larger purpose and in a larger context. Sometimes seeing that can be a matter of difficulty, even if it is a matter of importance.