What a cliché! But I used to think that I was a teacher of positive attitude in class. Wonder why I found myself this afternoon, about to leave for a four-day trip, consumed with worries. Then I recognized: What’s this? Then I turned to you-know-Whom. Then I found a different attitude, a sense of adventure with my unseen Companion. Later on I generalized the attitude to cosmic evolution, and then found an application with a person I sometimes find difficult. I can’t recall how much I’ve forgotten, and probably overestimate the extent to which this new attitude is new, but this does feel like a first, the modest sort of breakthrough that is normal for a growing person. Probably the bird circling around on an updraft: been there before but not quite at this altitude (at least relative to where I was earlier this afternoon).
I had been thinking about attitude, a deep-level component in artistic living. Of the philosophers I know only William James excels in understanding the importance of attitude. I regard it as our all-encompassing feeling that responds to the universe as a whole, as we conceive it. James is strong on the idea of acting on a positive attitude where there’s uncertainty. He uses a story, which I’ve heard was based upon his own experience, of a person hiking in the Alps, who faced a terrible leap to safety. He could sit there and worry, devastate his motivation, and leap to his death—or muster his faith in himself and give himself an excellent chance to do his best and succeed.
The big things matter, and so do the little things. Getting into the shower, we can take the water for granted, indulge ourselves for a long time, or worry about consuming the planet’s resources. An alternative is to receive the water as a gift of the cosmos, to be well used and enjoyed. Choosing that alternative cultivates cosmic emotion. Well-composed emotions convey a poise that is unruffled by timely surges of strong feeling.
Two teachings of Mencius on cosmic perspective can be transplanted into our garden. “Heaven, when it is about to place a great burden on a man, always first tests his resolution, exhausts his frame, and makes him suffer starvation and hardship, frustrates his efforts so as to shake him from his mental lassitude, toughen his nature, and make good his deficiencies.” Aesthetics, insofar as it is a teaching about feeling, does well to acknowledge the mission of adversity.
In the second passage we break into a dialogue after he had just been asked what his strong points were. His answer centers on the concept of ch‘i, energy which, as I interpret it, is not differentiated from spirit.
“I have an insight into words. I am good at cultivating my ‘flood-like ch‘i’.”
“May I ask what this ‘flood-like ch‘i’ is?”
“It is difficult to explain. This is a ch’i which is, in the highest degree, vast and unyielding. Nourish it with integrity and place no obstacle in its path and it will fill the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a ch’i which unites rightness and the Way. Deprive it of these and it will collapse. It is born of accumulated rightness and cannot be appropriated by anyone through a sporadic show of rightness.”
Mencius is talking about the momentum of righteous living, which gives power to our decisions to shape our experience. As soon as we become distracted from our value-path, momentum enables us to rejoin our purpose.[i]
Throughout our ups and downs, the deepest aspect of feeling is attitude, which summarizes our overall response to the universe as a whole. If we regard the universe as an evolutionary unfolding of an eternal plan, if we look forward each day to how our ordered life can fit into the Creator’s mosaic, our emotions will be shaped by the divine school of feeling.[ii]
[i] The quotes from Mencius are taken from Mencius, trans. D. C. Lau, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970), VI B 15 (181), and II A 2 (77–78).
[ii] The metaphor of the Creator’s mosaic and the theme of an ordered life come from a Christ-centered book of daily meditations, A. J. Russell, ed., God at Eventide: A Companion Volume to God Calling, by Two Listeners (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1950), 64, 78.