Life comes at us pretty fast, and there are two kinds of people: those who are defined by their circumstance, and those who choose to define themselves in their circumstances.
With certain exceptions, we generally cannot control the circumstances of life. Sure, we can not take that drink at a bar, we can avoid being with a certain kind of people, or choose not to engage in a particular sort of activity. But for the most part, the circumstances of life slam into us.
A foreign ruler’s decision to invade another country upsets the global economy, triggering a recession that forces your employer to go out of business. Some cabal of politicians from other parts of the country conspire to push legislation you oppose and enact policies you believe to be detrimental to the pursuit of happiness. You get the point; many things in the world happen to us outside of our control.
What we can control is our attitude, our outlook, and our reaction to those circumstances. We can be defined by them, or we can define them by the attitude and posture we chose to take despite them.
In the early 19th Century, the English poet William Wordsworth described the “Character of the Happy Warrior” in an ode to Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. Having already lost an arm and an eye in a previous battle, Nelson nonetheless refused to give up the fight or his good humor. Nelson was eventually killed by a sniper while leading a successful battle, inspiring his men to even greater success.
The happy warrior, Wordsworth wrote, “looks forward, persevering to the last… And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws his breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause.”
In my experience, those who let themselves be defined by the prevailing circumstances generally, in this fallen world, are a cheerless and grumbling lot. They look back on times that were rarely as wonderful as they remember, and proceed to spend their time mourning its passing.
On the other hand, those who ignore both the jeers and the cheers of the world are much happier. They look forward joyfully to what they can achieve in their circumstances, or the contribution they can make in the advancement of their ideas.
The difference is found in the daily choice of personal perspective. Will our attitude be dictated by others, or will we govern ourselves?
As a self-governing people, we must learn from the past and understand with clarity the present. Yet even more importantly, we must choose to be driven – happily – by our role in shaping and defining the possibilities of the future.