Living Valiantly 1

“I yam what I yam
and that's all what I yam"

Popeye the Sailorman

“ Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life, as a dog does his master's chaise.
Do what you love.
Know your own bone; gnaw at it,
bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still "


Man lernt nichts kennen als was man liebt".
("A man doesn't learn to understand anything
unless he loves it.")


My life has been full of mistakes and roads not taken, opportunities lost. Finally in my old age I think I have finally found some inkling that perhaps all the hurt, humiliation and bitterness does not have to always continue; it can be reclaimed into the innocence and love we all entered this world with. It is not easy to change our habits; but it is a possible and attainable goal.

I find writing a catharsis, a way of questioning myself. I don't claim to set down dogmatism, but only opinions, which are as frail and changeable as my mortality. In fact, in writing I expect to find my own faults, and reveal them to myself. This, I believe, is the only way to grow. Only by setting down what I believe now, can I know if I break my own rules. Also, I have always been an investigator and tinker; so even in the mental sphere this comes out in my writing, both factual and hypothetical investigations and personal emotional reactions together. So my dear reader, be tolerant.

Starting with me, myself (living valiantly)

Not long ago, I took a sculpture related course at the local art school. During a conversation, the works of Benvenuto Cellini 2 , the Florentine Sculptor, happened to emerge. The works of this renaissance genius had always been among my favorites. But his "Autobiography" is what I found to be his greatest work. Here every page exudes a zest, in truth a lust, for life, few will ever achieve. He lived life to the hilt, and laid it before his peers as if to say, “this is me, a human being, no more, no less; by the Gods, I’ll have my due!” Pondering this marvel of humanity I asked myself, why can’t we all live a life as significant as Cellini’s ?

Not everyone can make a difference in life; in fact, very few do. But every life can be significant. I've never seen anyone who said that life was easy. If it were, we'd probably be unhappy because there wasn't enough challenge. The point is that significance is relative to a particular life. So what Thoreau has said above is absolutely relevant. A life that remains unquestioned is a life without significance. And as Goethe says: man does not fully understand something unless he loves it; so he must have a love of life to fully understand it, or at least try to. This is precisely what Cellini had, a passion for life that consumed him, and he found this in what he himself could accomplish in both mind and body. But not only in his physical works of art, but also in the communication of this lust for life in his writings, which were also a work of living art.

One does not need to be an artist like Cellini to bring significance to his life. Every life is a work of art in the making. Every soul is the artist struggling to overcome the hurdles that life throws in his way. Each venture attacked, whether a success or failure, is judged by us, by the amount of energy we've applied, not by the outcome. If we are valiant in living, then we have made our lives significant.

Having written these words, and assaying them, I said to myself they sound pompous and overblown, but then I thought, a valiant attempt at life is beyond no one. The problem is with the word valiant. For some valiant may mean just continuing to live. For others it may mean attacking life as a mountain climber attacks the slopes of the highest mountain, as Cellini attacked life, without half measures.

Some people seem to glide through life as if life was without obstacles at all, while for others, everyday is unbearable hardship. The trouble is that we try to judge things from outside of them. The only true judgments are about ourselves by ourselves. External facts (i.e. facts that are occurrences in the outer world, outside of us) we can judge with precision (more or less), but "internal facts" or our inner life, can only be speculated on by another individual. Our mental or spiritual life is what directly touches us, and can only be attempted to be judged by us and us alone. The judgments we make about ourselves are always approximations, colored by our feelings at the time. To correctly evaluated ourselves we must become totally at ease with ourselves. We must be able to evaluate as if we were not involved; totally detached. The ego, which is our mind's interface to the world, is constantly hiding things which cause us pain and embarrassment. To overcome the ego in looking at our inner life is not an easy matter. In effect, this is a circumvention of its only vital function.

So how do we accomplish the task of self-evaluation? By practice, and creating the habit of critical self-evaluation. At first we must become able to ask the questions that need to be asked. This alone can be daunting. Gradually, we will not only ask these questions, but we will learn how to face the answers. In facing the answers we are "living valiantly". In facing the answers we can come to grips with decisions about living.

So what does it all mean?

Everyone wants to live a significant life. The "significance" is something, which we define. How we define it, and whether we will even get to define it for ourselves, depends on whether we will choose to live valiantly, as I have described above. Living valiantly means caring enough about life to be constantly asking the questions about ourselves that matter for us. Being able to face the answers so we can make the proper decisions as to what significance means for us. But the big thing is that in living valiantly we realize that whether we succeed or fail, the effort that we have made has justified life for us a little bit more. It has brought us into an "oneness" with living, where we have become so enmeshed with life that the thought of giving up will never even occur to us. This is the passion that Cellini had. We can all share it, perhaps not as deeply or fully, perhaps not as enthusiastically, but all the same we can have a part of it.

As I write this, the news of the death of the actor Christopher Reeve has just broken. If Mr. Reeve had never been injured, I'm sure he would have been a fine actor, and perhaps remembered as such; but after his devastating injury he certainly will be remembered as much more. His injury, which was certainly a blow few would have been able to deal with, was instead turned by him into a triumph for humanity. It had actually given his life a significance, not only for himself, but a significance for all humanity. He certainly lived a valiant life, which was as full as any man's life could be. His passion for living was on a par with Cellini's. And we can always turn to this life as a shining example of how any life, no matter how tortured or broken, can be lived as fully, and with as much significance as any other.


To return to note's origin click the footnote number at left

1 This is an old essay I wrote some time ago, around the time of the death of the actor Christopher Reeve in 2004, who I believed lived a very valiant (he truly showed himself a real "Superman") life - a life with "meaning"!

2 Benvenuto Cellini was a great artist and craftsman, a true "Reniassance man". He lived at the time of the Reniassance, in Italy; he was a Florentine goldsmith, and sculptor, and all-around adventurer. He also wrote one of the first Autobiographies.

By today's standards he would be considered a murderer (he murdered the man who killed his brother in a street fight), and even a pervert (he slept with nine year old girls); but, in his day, there were different attitudes toward things; and as even the Pope at that time said: "With such a man as Cellini, the law makes exceptions." Whatever his faults, and they were many, he lived a life that can be truly said to be "significant". He lived what I call: "valiantly". And in the end, he created something that even men much more moral and knowledgeable than he could never have produced.



Originally Published:

September 14, 2011


July 3, 2014