It’s rather difficult in these noisy, confusing, nerve-racking days to achieve the peace of mind in which to pause for a moment to reflect on what you believe in. There’s so little time and opportunity to give it much thought—though it is the thing we live by; and without it, without beliefs, human existence today would hardly be bearable.
My own view of life, like everyone else’s, is conditioned by personal experience. In my own case, there were two experiences, in particular, which helped to shape my beliefs: years of life and work under a totalitarian regime, and a glimpse of war.
Living in a totalitarian land taught me to value highly—and fiercely—the very things the dictators denied: tolerance, respect for others and, above all, the freedom of the human spirit.
A glimpse of war filled me with wonder not only at man’s courage and capacity for self-sacrifice, but at his stubborn, marvelous will to preserve, to endure, to prevail—amidst the most incredible savagery and suffering. When you saw people—civilians—who where bombed out, or who, worse, had been hounded in the concentration camps or worked to a frazzle in the slave-labor gangs—when you saw them come out of these ordeals of horror and torture, still intact as human beings, with a will to go on, with a faith still in themselves, in their fellow man, and in God, you realized that man was indestructible. You appreciated, too, that despite the corruption and cruelty of life, man somehow managed to retain great virtues: love, honor, courage, self-sacrifice, compassion.
It filled you with a certain pride just to be a member of the human race. It renewed your belief in your fellow men.
Of course, there are many days in this age of anxiety when a human being feels awfully low and discouraged. I myself find consolation at such moments by two means: trying to develop a sense of history, and renewing the quest for inner life.
I go back, for example, to reading Plutarch. He reminds you that even in the golden days of Greece and Rome, from which so much that is splendid in our own civilization derives, there was a great deal of what we find so loathsome in life today: war, strife, corruption, treason, double-crossing, intolerance, tyranny, rabble-rousing. Reading history thus gives you perspective. It enables you to see your troubles relatively. You don’t take them so seriously then.
Finally, I find that most true happiness comes from one’s inner life; from the disposition of the mind and soul. Admittedly, a good inner life is difficult to achieve, especially in these trying times. It takes reflection and contemplation. And self-discipline. One must be honest with oneself, and that’s not easy. You have to have patience and understanding. And, when you can, seek God.
But the reward of having an inner life, which no outside storm or evil turn of fortune can touch, is, it seems to me, a very great one.