Peace of Mind (1948)
Joshua Loth Liebman

  

Once, as a young man, I undertook to draw up a catalogue of the acknowledged "goods" of life.  I set down my inventory of earthly desirables:  health, love, talent, power, riches and fame.  Then I proudly showed it to a wise elder.

"An excellent list," said my old friend, "and set down in a reasonable order.  But you have omitted the one important ingredient, lacking which your list becomes an intolerable burden."

He crossed out my entire schedule.  Then he wrote down three syllables:  peace of mind.

"This is the gift that God reserves for his special protégés," he said.

"Talent and health he gives to many.  Wealth is commonplace, fame not rare.  But peace of mind he bestows charily.

"This is no private opinion of mine," he explained.  "I am merely paraphrasing the Psalmists, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tse.  'O God, Lord of the universe,' say these wise ones, 'heap worldly gifts at the feet of foolish people.  Give me the gift of the untroubled mind.'"

I found that difficult to accept; but now, after a quarter of a century of personal experience and professional observation, I have come to understand that peace of mind is the true goal of the considered life.

I know now that the sum of all other possessions does not necessarily add up to peace of mind; on the other hand, I have seen this inner tranquility flourish without the material supports of property or even the buttress of physical health.  Peace of mind can transform a cottage into a spacious manor hall; the want of it can make a regal residence an imprisoning shell.

Where then shall we look for it?  The key to the problem is to be found in Matthew Arnold's lines:

"We would have inward peace
But will not look within. . ."

But will not look within!  Here, in a single phrase, our willfulness is bared.

It is a striking irony that, while religious teaching emphasizes people's obligations to others, it says little about their obligations to themselves.  One of the great discoveries of modern psychology is that our attitudes towards ourselves are even more complicated than our attitudes towards others.  The great commandment of religion, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," might now be better interpreted to mean, "Thou shalt love thyself properly, and then thou wilt love thy neighbor."

Some will argue that this is a dangerous doctrine.  "Human beings love themselves too much already," they will say.  "The true goal of life is the rejection of self in the service of others."  There are errors in this estimate of human nature.  The evidence points in quite the opposite direction.  We often treat ourselves more rigidly, more vengefully, than we do others.  Suicide and more subtle forms of self-degradation such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and promiscuity are extreme proofs of this.  But all the streets of the world are teeming with everyday men and women who mutilate themselves spiritually by self-criticism; who go through life committing partial suicide--destroying their own talents, energies, creative qualities.

To one who goes through life hypnotized by thoughts of inferiority, I would say, "In actuality, you are quite strong and wise and successful.  You have done rather well in making a tolerable human existence out of the raw materials at your disposal.  There are those who love and honor you for what you really are.  Take off your dark-colored glasses, assume your place as an equal in the adult world, and realize that your strength is adequate to meet the problems of that world."

Another road to proper self-regard is the acceptance of ourselves for what we are--a combination of strengths and weaknesses.  The great thing is that as long as we live we have the privilege of growing.  We can learn new skills, engage in new kinds of work, devote ourselves to new causes, make new friends.  Accepting, then, the truth that we are capable in some directions and limited in others, that genius is rare, that mediocrity is the portion of most of us, let us remember also that we can and must change ourselves.

Every person who wishes to attain peace of mind must learn the art of renouncing many things in order to possess other things more fully.

The philosopher Santayana pointed out that the great difficulty in life does not so much arise in the choice between good and evil as in the choice between good and good.  In early life, however, we do not realize that one desire can be quite inconsistent with another.  The young boy may vacillate between a dozen different plans for the future, but the mature person will have to renounce many careers in order to fulfill one.  The same truth exists in the realm of emotions.  It is fitting for the adolescent to transfer his or her love interest from one object of affection to another, but it is tragic when the grown-up still plays the role of the adolescent.  He or she has not yet learned that human growth means the closing of many doors before one great door can be opened--the door of mature love and of adult achievement.

The first fundamental truth about our individual lives is the indispensability of love to every human being.  By "love" I mean relatedness to some treasured person or group, the feeling of belonging to a larger whole, of being of value to others.

Our interdependence with others is the most encompassing fact of human reality--our personalities are made by our contacts with others.  There is, therefore, a duty which falls upon all of us--to become free, loving, warm, cooperative, affirmative personalities.

To love one's neighbors is to achieve an inner tolerance for the uniqueness of others, to resist the temptation to private imperialism.  We must renounce undue possessiveness in relation to friends, children--yes, even our loves.  The world is full of private imperialists--the father who forces his artistic son into business, or the mother who rivets her daughter to her service by chains of pity, subtly refusing the daughter a life of her own.

When we insist that others conform to our ideas of what is proper, good, acceptable, we show that we are not certain of the rightness of our inner pattern.  Those who are sure of themselves are deeply willing to let others be themselves.  We display true love when we cease to demand that our loved ones become revised editions of ourselves. . . .

Both science and religion teach us that the obstacles to serenity are not external.  They lie within us.  If we acquire the art of proper self-love; if, aided by religion, we free ourselves from shadow fears, and learn honestly to face grief and transcend it; if we flee from immaturity and boldly shoulder adult responsibility; if we appraise and accept ourselves as we really are, how then can we fail to create a good life for ourselves?  For then inward peace will be ours.

  
   

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