Contentment in Right Action

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken…
~Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

Something that seems forgotten in our society is the value of contenting oneself in right action rather than good outcomes, in adhering to a moral code or standard despite material losses, in choosing to love though the object of love proves to be human–prone to err.  Often those who are well-loved are examined for what it is that makes them well-loved, worthy, inherently valuable. These examinations are typically based on a society’s material values of worth and beauty. But when spiritual values are adopted, one is able to view others as God’s creations, as inherently valuable and worthy of love, despite alterations. Recognizing inherent worth in all of God’s creation challenges assumptions made about those who are loved and valued.  If all are valuable and worthy of love, why then are some rejected? Can we assume, that someone who has been rejected must not have been worthy of love? Must have been difficult to love?  A spiritual view refocuses attention on the action of love, on the ability of the lover.

Shakespeare’s line, “Love is not love which alters when alteration finds,” has this impact, refocusing the reader’s attention on the ability of the lover to love, no matter what tempests or alterations in circumstances occur.  Love is an action, a choice, an ability more than a feeling.  And choosing to love despite disappointments or change is true love in action.

“It is an ever-fixed mark…”  Loving at all times and in all circumstances is the absolute, an ever-fixed mark.  The character and principles of the lover determine the quality of the love.  It is only in the adherence to unchanging principles of love (self-sacrifice) that one is able to truly love others and find contentment in one’s self, in right action.  An example of this concept is found in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibilities, when Ms. Dashwood refers to Edward Ferrars’s right conduct towards Ms. Lucy Steele, his adherence to the promise he made to Ms. Steele at a young age though he no longer feels love for her, as right action in which he can content himself. “I wish him very happy; and I am so sure of his always doing his duty, that though now he may harbour some regret, in the end he must become so.”  Content himself, become happy in his own honourable behaviour? What of happiness in love? Attraction? Inheritance? and career?

Austen also offers an example of someone whose integrity is sacrificed in the character of John Willoughby, who engages in passionate relationship with Ms. Marianne Dashwood, whom he ultimately rejects–his love alters when alteration finds:  His circumstances, due to previous harmful choices, alter, requiring him to give up Marianne in order to pursue a marriage of convenience–to marry Ms. Grey with her 50 thousand pounds. What choices did he have? He could choose poverty and love with Marianne or comfort and financial stability with Ms. Grey. But those are only outcomes of choice. What of contentment in adhering to right action no matter what outcome?

Many rationalize or justify the sacrifice of their principles in a circumstances such is this, altering the principles which guide them to suit a choice that allows them material gain,  sacrificing the spiritual to gain the material. Mrs. Fanny Dashwood provides an excellent example of rationalizations that lead from “the ever-fixed mark” to quite another destination.  The son of Mr. John Dashwood who inherits the family fortune, Norland included, promises his father on his deathbed that he will assist his stepmother and her three daughters because circumstances prevented him from providing for them himself.  Upon hearing of the promise, Mrs. Fanny Dashwood begins the deliberate erosion of the meaning of “assist,” by questioning the sanity of the man,  taking the expectation down from offering 3000 pounds to one half that amount saying “He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right sense, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child” (p. 8).  From there she appealed to John’s sense of greatness (his ego), putting that beside the little others would do for someone of greater value, for real sisters. As Fanny says,   “What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is — only half blood — But you have such a generous spirit.” Knowing his desire to please and meet expectations, Fanny redirects his focus away from the promise or what others expect onto what he can afford, responding to his “One had rather, on such occasions, do too much than too little. No one, at least, can think I have not done enough for them: even themselves, they can hardly expect more,” with “There is no knowing what they may expect…but we are not to think of their expectations: the question is what you can afford to do.” He responds by saying he could give them 100 pounds each, and Fanny again erodes this good will, lessening his sense of their need with “To be sure it is: and indeed, it strikes me that they can want no addition at all…”  John then suggests an annuity which Fanny reacts to as well, due to how it restricts one, “takes away one’s independence.”  John suggests a present of 50 pounds, now and then, and Fanny responds “Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all.  The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you; for instance, such as looking out for a comfortable small house for them, helping them to move their things…” She then takes it even one step further, from indebtedness, to entitlement saying: “I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it [500 per year]; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.”  (p. 12)  Fanny leads John completely away from the promise he made to his father, the understanding that he had, and even from an accountability to himself to do the right thing.  He is persuaded that the women are not in any need, and Fanny’s own purposes are served in the fulfillment of the promise which they agree means to be of assistance in getting the women out of Norland into their own home.  John suffers no twinge of conscience and is perfectly content to help in the search for a home and move, until Mrs. Dashwood is offered Barton cottage, which is too far away for him to fulfill his promise.  He must, then, find a way to live with the knowledge that he did not fulfill his promise, his obligation to his father, stepmother and stepsisters.   Rationalizations minimize the immediate negative consequences of sacrifices to integrity, allowing one to maintain a level of comfort by gaining the acceptance and approval of society, of others, and even oneself, if one is able to deceive oneself into believing there was no other choice but to deviate from one’s standards in order to maintain a certain level of happiness and comfort in one’s life.

Does it really matter what is sacrificed in order to achieve something good in our lives?

The surface question which many 19th century British authors like Austen explored was the question of whether it is better to marry for love or for money.  But I think the deeper question that is explored is whether or not to sacrifice spiritual principles, moral behaviour, in order to achieve material gain in any decision that one is required to make.  Marianne questions this near the end of the book, exploring the question of what would have happened if she and Willoughby had married for love? Would love have sustained their marriage when Willoughby’s chief object was his own selfish happiness?  “I never could have been happy with him, after knowing, as sooner or later I must have known, all this. – I should have no confidence, no esteem.”  True, a decision not to marry a man who sacrifices integrity for personal happiness is a good choice–trust is a big part of a loving relationship and if someone is intent on personal happiness rather than their lovers, there can be no trust, no love.  Willoughby’s sacrifices of integrity end up costing him a life of love, and contentment in himself, in his own right action.   Elinor (Ms. Dashwood) affirms Marianne’s thoughts saying, “Had you married, you must have been always poor. His expensiveness is acknowledged even by himself, and his whole conduct declared that self-denial is a word hardly understood by him” (p. 338).

The expense or cost of sacrificing one’s integrity in order to gain material happiness is that one becomes powerless to be content. The locus of control becomes external, put into the hands of society or others who may or may not part with their integrity in order to achieve their happiness. One becomes reliant on others for  contentment, for happiness.  As Elinor says to Marianne in the thick of her disappointment over the loss of Edward to Miss Steele, ” And, after all Marianne, after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant — it is not fit–it is not possible that it should be so” (p. 253). Elinor recognizes that one’s happiness can not be dependent on anyone else.  Contentment must be found in exercising one’s own ability to love, and right action in accordance with a moral code.  Sacrificing one’s own integrity for material gain puts contentment into the hands of others.  Is it any wonder there are so many unhappy people? Unable to control how others behave, or what departures others make from their integrity, we become victims of our own sacrifice–the sacrifice of integrity, of the spiritual–as well as victims of the sacrifice of integrity made by others.

Refreshingly, there are those whose habit is self-denial–is love. They are able to recognize and respond to the suffering that those who have acted in integrity experience, such as in the case of Colonel Brandon, who, upon hearing of Edward’s family’s unkindness, (denying him his inheritance as punishment for engaging himself to Lucy) bestows on Edward a living,  offering the Deleford parsonage to him.  Elinor tells Edward, “Colonel Brandon means it as a testimony of his concern for what has lately passed — for the cruel situation in which the unjustifiable conduct of your family has placed you–a concern which I am sure Marianne, myself, and all your friends must share; and likewise a proof of his high esteem for your general character” (p.279).

An ever-fixed mark means the honourable, the right action, the principled behaviour must be adhered to, must guide our choices and behaviours despite the material sacrifices involved. The mark or standard can’t be moved to suit our own selfish purposes.  If we deviate we will miss the mark.   In choosing right action, we can love those who disappoint us, love despite a lack of return,  even love our enemy,  love though the choice causes material losses, and yet still be content through the knowledge that we have acted in accordance with our principles. We can take “the road less travelled” despite the disappointing behaviour of others or the material sacrifices we make to preserve our integrity.

Principles should guide us absolutely, but what absolute guides our principles? Can we think that all morality is relative? a mark which alters depending on location, circumstance, time…etc.? Can the post-modern solution of self-reflection really improve us if it isn’t held up against an absolute standard of Goodness? Yes, the right thing to do can change given the location, time, etc. Achieving heroic action–the right action in the right time, and the right place–(see Thomas Carlyle) is a delicate balance, and it is based on higher standards than rules and regulations about what is conventionally considered right and good. Social standards about right and wrong are certainly constructed, set out by a commonly held set of values, but are not necessarily based on what benefits all, nor on self-giving principles demonstrated by Christ. In fact, laws are notoriously written to benefit the rich in society. Society’s ideas of right and wrong are not absolute; they are relative to the community who uphold these standards. Thus, giving rationalizations and justifications for our deviations from our principles to become acceptable to our society, appealing to the social conventions, also makes us victims because we become dependent on social conventions and on government for justice and legislation that takes into account our happiness–not very satisfying.  (Kohlberg would call the ability to rise above social conventions a post conventional stage of moral development–a higher level of morality).

Ultimately, we must live in accordance with our internal principles which have ideally been shaped and transformed through spiritual principles of Truth and Love–Eternal standards to which we often find ourselves appealing to when we are wronged (see C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity). For Christians, that Truth and Love is found in the Living Word of God, that is Christ. Living a life devoted to building one’s own character through sacrificing material gain (as modelled by Christ with his ultimate Sacrifice ) is not selfishness. It is learning to love, to live in accordance with eternal and absolute values, allowing us to do the non-sensical, to love despite the lack we find in another’s ability to love in return, and to choose to preserve our integrity rather than sacrifice it to some material gain. We can live content in our own behaviour. When we sacrifice the spiritual to gain the material we become victims, but when we sacrifice the material for the spiritual we gain freedom, and can live content in having done the right thing.

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