Updated: Jul 24
There is a famous quote that is popularly ascribed to Epictetus, saying, “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake in little things, and then proceed to greater.” This quote is pertinent to us in general, however, in the development of the virtues, it is almost essential. Like all of you, I am not perfect. I fail all the time. Sometimes I fail when a little lie sneaks out when my wife asks if I have done the washing. Sometimes I fail when I have told myself I’d do some writing but end up surfing the web or playing games. Like you, I fail because doing the right thing in the small things is hard and the peril seems small.
However, we are fooling ourselves when we tell ourselves that these little failures don’t matter. Those little lies, if not caught, multiply and before long they will become second nature. While initially, you might just lie about the housework, eventually, you will lie about more important things. That idle procrastination that convinces you to surf the web instead of working seems equally harmless. Yet over time, its hold over us grows. At first, it only steals your concentration in the little things, but eventually, you will struggle to concentrate even in the important matters.
This is important because the gradual slide from virtue to vice, honesty to dishonesty, diligence to idleness begins in the small things before it infects the greater ones. How often do we look at the monsters of this world and imagine them to have been born evil? Yet they, like you, started off good. The fraudster lying in the little things over time moved to lie in the greater. The serial killer harms animals before moving on to people. Even the Nazi’s did not begin with genocide but started with lesser crimes. In each case, the message is clear. If we would be honest, then be honest in the seemingly unimportant matters and in the great. If we would not be a thief, then do not even steal a cent or a penny. If we would be conscientious, then be so always, not just when the stakes are high.
For us who seek the welfare of our families and our communities, it is not enough that we only do not harm them in the big things or seek the good only sometimes. We must refrain from doing harm no matter how small it seems to be at the time, just as we must seek their good all the time. We must practice the virtues at all times, not just when it is convenient. This includes with ourselves.
I have written often about how to help us keep our word, it is useful to tell others of our plans and, thus, to use others to keep you to your word. Implicit in this is an understanding of the difficulty of keeping our word to ourselves. This is indeed something I struggle with. I tell myself that I am going to skip dessert this week, and two days later, I’m eating a big bowl of pudding. I tell myself I am going to walk the kids to school and end up driving. In each of these cases, I break my word to myself. This is a problem that many of us face, and relying on someone to be there to hold you to your word is just not possible all the time. What we need is to become more self-reliant and be able to hold ourselves to our internal promises. How can we do this when we have failed so often in the past?
The only way is to practice ourselves in the little things. To us, the virtue of honour is to hold ourselves to our internal promises just as we do with our promises to others. Don’t promise yourself you will not eat desert for a year, a month, or even a week at first. Try promising yourself you will not have it for just one day. You will find it is easier to resist temptation if it is only for one day and will set you up for success. Your will is a muscle, and the more you practice it, the stronger it will become and the easier it will be to resist temptation.
When you are tempted, ask yourself, “Is my honour really worth so little as to sell it for a chocolate bar?” You will be astonished how powerful this question can be, and as you persist in keeping your word, you will slowly develop your will power and reinforce your sense of honour. As you develop the ability and habit of acting honourably with yourself, you will inevitably act more honourably with others. Thus, by practising the ability to resist temptation in the smallest of matters, you will develop the ability to resist the greatest of temptations. All of which will enhance your ability to promote the welfare of your family and community.
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