I find that we humans sometimes become obsessed with philosophies that we think will help us overcome our flaws or that are the opposite of our weaknesses. We find the exact opposite of our reality and repeat it like a mantra. Sometimes, this works!
But have you ever found yourself repeating a mantra that doesn’t work? The problem persists? More often than not, we pick philosophies that only sound like the solution, but in actual practice they don’t work.
Sometimes you just have to keep striving and the philosophy will help you. Just because something takes a while to work doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But, sometimes you’re backing the wrong horse. Sometimes you’re trying a philosophy that really won’t help you.
I’ll use myself as an example. For years I felt powerless over certain weaknesses and habits and I sought a way to overcome them. Many talk about how you should “man up!” or “just do it!” or “pick yourself up by your bootstraps!” (a physical impossibility, you need something to push off of to pick yourself up, all you’ll do is tighten your boots if you follow that advice!). They say that by throwing agency and willpower at problems that you can conquer anything! You can be anything that you want! Like in the poem below. I once had it memorized and repeated it thousands of time. Hoping that it would give me strength:
by William E. Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may
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.
Sounds awesome right? Sounds epic? How many memes and songs are out there today that are all about “Look at the awesomeness of me! I can do anything!”
Well, the poem didn’t fix me. I fell prey to the same weaknesses over and over again. Anger. Selfishness. A desire to consume entertainment and mental stimulation to excess. I was powerless to break my habits.
Thomas S. Monson (one of my Church’s leaders) said: “It is a great poem. It places upon the individual the responsibility for what he does with his life… But on the other hand, it may sound arrogant and conceited in terms of the Atonement.”
I learned over time that I couldn’t overcome my flaws by agency alone. That poem didn’t give me power. Why not? Why couldn’t I “man” myself out of my weaknesses? After some new understanding, I found this other poem which was written as a response to Invictus:
The Soul’s Captain
by Orson F. Whitney
Art thou in truth the master of thy fate?
The captain of thy soul?
Then what of him
who bought thee with his blood?
Who plunged into devouring seas
and snatched thee from the raging flood?
Who bore for all our fallen race
what none but him could bear–
the God who died that man might live,
and endless glory share?
Of what avail thy vaunted strength,
Apart from his vast might?
Pray that his Light
may pierce the gloom,
that thou might see aright.
Men are as bubbles on the wave,
as leaves upon the tree,
O’ captain of thy soul, explain!
Who gave that place to thee?
Free will is thine–free agency,
To wield for right or wrong;
But thou must answer unto him
To whom all souls belong.
Bend to the dust thy head “unbowed,”
small part of Life’s great whole!
And see in him, and him alone,
The Captain of thy soul.
Whether you are religious or not, the example works. Both poems are used as a solution to a flaw: feeling powerless to overcome weakness. One says grit your teeth and be tough, the other says use your agency to rely on something more powerful than yourself. You need someone/something to help lift you.
I had felt powerless that I chanted “I’m powerful!” a thousand times. But now I know that I am powerless. And only through the surrender of my will and my life to God do I find power.
Now, by switching philosophies, I have made much more progress with my flaws. I’m not perfect, and don’t expect to be anytime soon. But when I encounter a weakness, I surrender the battle with it to God. I bend with the wind, letting it pass over me, letting God take care of it. And the wind doesn’t break me nearly as often.
Not my will. His will. Not my glory. His glory. Not my battle. His battle. Let go and let God.
There are others that I see chanting their mantras such as miserable people who say “Do only what makes you happy and you alone.”
Those who have hurt others that say “If it’s in the past it doesn’t matter, accept what everyone does, have no expectations” and say nothing of the need for repentance, forgiveness, and restitution for harm done.
Those who are promiscuous and say “This lifestyle makes me happy” yet end up wondering why they are so sad and lonely.
Likely the greatest and the most harmful is the modern philosophy: “To follow your impulses with no restraint is freedom” and those who repeat that often learn too late that following impulses alone with no control leads to a life of slavery to addiction and to habit, with no friends or loved ones, broken and weak. Lonely and alone.
If you take a hard look at yourself, past the lies you tell yourself, you might find that the mantra or philosophy you keep repeating isn’t yielding the results you want. You might see that you need to double your efforts and persevere, you might see that you misunderstand the philosophy you are repeating, or you might see that you are trying to implement a philosophy that just won’t work. The philosophy is either a lie, or a half-truth.
Good luck! Keep trying, or give it up!