No other human power can match that of determination. It has the potential to create heaven or hell not just for oneself, but also for the world. It is the ultimate terminator, unstoppable and invincible; nothing can stand in its way – not obstacles, not dangers, not even death. Nations rise and fall on the backs of a few determined souls. The most glorious as well as the most heinous pages of human history belong to individuals, who are totally resolute and fearless in their single-minded pursuit, regardless of the costs.
Thus, the very thought of resolute determination at once fills my heart with terror and hope. The same spirit of uncompromising tenacity has given the world both Adolph Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi, Saddam Hussein and Pope John Paul II.
How much innocent blood must be shed for tyrants to achieve their dreams of glory? How much more sacrifice must be made in order to overcome evil with greater resolve? In the midst of an eternal warfare between freedom and fear, is there any room for the Middle Way?
In spite of its potential for abuse, determination remains an essential human strength for human survival and progress. The thin line between good and evil lies in the purpose, which drives the engine of success. Let us pause for a moment and consider three very different types of determination; each contains both the seeds for greatness and destruction.
The power of an old fool
As a school child, the story of a determined old fool made the deepest impression on my inquisitive mind. An old man in a village is the laughing stock of all the villagers. He has reached the ripe old age, in which he is expected to enjoy the fruits of his labor and the respect from his family. But he has chosen to spend his remaining years trying to remove a mountain with a shovel.
“How convenient it would be for the village folks to travel to the next town, if I can remove this mountain,” he says to himself. Once his mind is made up, neither kindly advice nor sarcastic scorn can dissuade him from his mission.
“You will never live long enough to accomplish this gigantic task,” they would say. To which he simply replies: “After I die, my children will take over the project. Then their children and their children’s children will continue until this mountain is flattened for the benefits of all the villagers.”
Undaunted, he carries on the impossible task, one shovel at a time, one day at a time. As he rests his aching back and wipes the sweat off his forehead, his heart must be filled with joy and hope.
A true visionary is this proverbial fool. He can see a bright future, way beyond his grave. Indeed, faith can move mountains. His hope is based on nothing more than his faith in his family lineage — his children and children’s children shall inherit in the earth.
Oh yes, you can move mountains and reclaim oceans. You can accomplish just about anything, with people power in succeeding generations! Just pause and think what it means. It staggers the mind to imagine what a country can do with more than 1.2 billion determined citizens.
The power of absurd heroes
There is a type of determination, fuelled by Stoicism rather than passionate vision. Come hell and high waters. Let a thousand woes descend from Heaven. Even though He slays me, still will I believe in living with dignity and endurance.
This is not the voice of Job of Christianity, but that of absurd heroes of existentialism. Meet Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague. Tormented by his heroic but futile efforts to save lives from bubonic plague, and shadowed by the sentence of death himself, the good doctor continues to perform his medical duties. He has no reason, no logical explanation for his self-sacrificial determination. Yet, it is only thorough his defiant human spirit that Dr. Rieux creates meaning and dignity in the midst of meaningless, tragic deaths.
Then consider Albert Camus’s essay on the Myth of Sisyphus, the epitome of the absurd hero. Condemned by the gods to the underworld, and sentenced to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain only to see it descend to the bottom, Sisyphus confronts his fate of eternal torment with courageous determination.
As the myth goes, Sisyphus is conscious of the utter hopelessness of his plight – there is no relief from his backbreaking labor except for the brief moments of descent. There is definitely no redemption from his penalty, no exit from his hell. Still, he has a choice – he can either choose defeat and suffering for all eternity, or to transcend his destiny. By choosing the latter, he gladly commits his life to this fruitless labor and thus transforms his punishment into victory. This is how Camus concludes this essay:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
We can all relate to Sisyphus in some way. Daily we battle through traffic jams, take on more and more work, feel exhausted most of the time, and yet accomplish nothing really significant. We willingly expend ourselves to push the rock uphill, knowing full well that we have to repeat the same process the next day. The rock remains. It mocks us and dares us. Yet we embrace it as our dear life. We need to push the rock daily just to stay alive and earn our livelihood. We feel trapped in the endless web of nothingness and, alas, there is no exit. That’s the naked reality of human existence. Camus deliberately draws a connection between modern workers and Sisyphus:
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd.
How do we cope with the absurdity and meaninglessness of work life? None of the coping methods of scientific psychology can help us. We can create meaning and significance in an absurd and oppressive work environment only through confronting and transcending the problem.
Are we willing to do the same boring job over and over again? Are we willing to run errands back and forth? Are we willing to put up with an insane and abusive boss? Are we tired of being other people’s stepping-stones? Whatever our work problem, whatever our torment, we can learn from Sisyphus.
Each day we survive the rock, we become stronger and the rock becomes lighter. But be careful not to cross the invisible line between the defiant human spirit and nihilism. The rebel believes that everything is possible, while the nihilist claims that everything is permissible; herein lies the critical difference.
The power of religious conviction
There is yet another source of power that can energize us in the face of absurdity and adversity. A deeply held religious conviction can sustain us, even when everything else has failed. Once we enter religion into the equation, we no longer need to shoulder the boulder by the sheer force of our will. Faith coupled with grace can accomplish more than all the human energies we can muster, because it enables us to draw from the spiritual capital.
The Bible is full of verses, that empower us to persevere. Here are what God promises to his people Israel in the Book of Isaiah (40: 29-31):
He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
In a similar passage in the New Testament, the author of the Book of Hebrews (12: 2-3) challenges Christians to model after Jesus Christ:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Jesus was so committed to his mission that he did not refuse the cup of suffering, nor did he turn away from the cross. “It’s finished” was his last victory whisper, which still reverberates in heaven and hell.
Strange as it may sound, whenever I think of a contemporary example of faith-based courage and determination, the image of President George Bush keeps on coming to my mind.
In Scene One, President Bush stands before a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, reassures a nation reeling from the tragedy of 9/11. With determination in his eyes and resolve in his voice, President Bush delivers these memorable words:
I will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.
In Scene Two, with a new mandate from the American people, he once again repeats his pledge in his State of the Union Speech:
Our war against terror is a contest of will in which perseverance is power. In the ruins of two towers, at the western wall of the Pentagon, on a field in Pennsylvania, this nation made a pledge, and we renew that pledge tonight: Whatever the duration of this struggle, and whatever the difficulties, we will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men — free people will set the course of history.
Regardless whether one agrees with his policy and no matter how history will judge his presidency, one thing is crystal clear – his determination to stamp out terrorism and spread democracy stems from his deeply held religious conviction that freedom is God’s gift to the world, and America is God’s chosen instrument to accomplish this worthy goal.
That’s why he is able to stay firm and withstand mounting oppositions. Even when the world opinion turned against him, popular support in America sank to a historical low, and the bloody Iraq insurgency threatened his re-election, President Bush did not waver. Religious faith gives President Bush not only a clear sense of purpose, but also an almost mystical feeling of invincibility. The battle belongs to the Lord, and George is merely God’s instrument. Therefore, he will not lose heart, no matter how bleak the situation, because God Almighty is on the throne.
The problem, of course, is that al-Quida also firmly believes that God is on their side. Militant Islamists’ call for a holy war against Jews, Americans and Christians remains a powerful driving force in recruiting terrorists and suicide bombers.
When political and economic issues are tied to core religious convictions, it is almost impossible to reach a negotiated settlement, because any compromise would be perceived as a breach of religious commitment or betrayal of God. That is why it is so difficult to resolve ethno-political conflicts.
Now that we know the power of determination and commitment for both good and evil, where do we go from here? How can we be resolute and dedicated without being obstinate and self-righteous? How can we be committed to life when death seems a more attractive alternative?
I have not been able to find clear answers from people far wiser than I. All I can share with my readers is a glimpse of wisdom I have received by standing on the shoulders of intellectual and spiritual giants.
Determination is essential for survival
Last week, as I spoke to occupational therapists in Hong Kong and visited their facilities, one thing became abundantly clear – restoration of hope and meaning is essential to healing.
In case after case, the problem is the same. The patients may suffer from SARS, AIDS, cancer, stroke, accident, or simply advanced age, but they have to struggle with the same attitudinal barrier of wanting to die. The pain is too great, the prognosis is too hopeless, the progress is too slow, and the future is too bleak. What is the point of staying alive? What is the use of going through the routine of therapy?
The challenge is how to revive their will to live and their determination to recover, even when all their experiences and all the evidences conspire against hope. That is why the occupational therapists find the concept of tragic optimism (hyperlink) especially helpful in combating suicidal ideation.
The survival instinct often cannot survive prolonged, extreme situations, unless it is transformed into the will to live. This transformational coping strategy is both existential and spiritual. The affirmation of meaning – the belief that there is something inherently good in life — is sufficient to sustain life, even when one cannot articulate a reason for living. The determination to live can be further buttressed and reinforced by religious faith and spiritual resources.
Determination is always good for resilience, whether it is based on stoic heroism or the will to meaning. At this very basic survival level, I see very little risk in exercising the power of determination. However, once we progress beyond survival and enter the dominion of success, the specters of corruption begin to raise their ugly heads.
Determination is essential for success
Determination is also essential for success, however one defines it. For those not blessed with exceptional talents, it can be very empowering to hear the words of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not;
Genius will not;
Education will not;
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Remember the proverbial old fool? Nothing worth doing comes easy. There are no short cuts, no quick fixes. It takes determined efforts, commitment and persistence to achieve one’s most cherished dreams, whatever they maybe.
There will always be obstacles, risks, disappointments, fears, doubts, setbacks, even moments of despair. But determined people will turn these challenges into opportunities. Their courage and commitment generate enthusiasm and positive energy, which will reinforce their determination, until their dreams become reality.
But determined people can become both tyrants and saints. What sets them apart is their purpose and aspirations. The key question is: What is the one thing, the one mission, to which we are prepared to commit our lives?
In simple terms, determination means that our pursuits are not at the mercy of emotions, impulses, or winds of expediency. It requires disciple, self-control, and an unwavering set of core values. The evil that may arise from such fierce determination is greatly reduced when character matters more than success.
Success can never be one’s all consuming passion in life. The determination to be a good person must come before the ambition to be great. Ambitious charity will never corrupt, because the world is big enough for all the compassion and love one can offer. Ambitious greed always self-destructs, because no one is big enough to continually acquire power and wealth without implosion.
Character provides the best protection against blind ambition. Character is the diamond under untold pressures, and the anchor in the midst of temptations. Henry James has said it well, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”
What is the crucial test of the power of determination and commitment? It is not the ability to build empires or lasting monuments, but the moral capacity to overcome adversities and resist temptations. Authentic determination transcends success and failure, life and death; it absorbs all the pains and sufferings and transforms life into a shining light in the dark night.
I can’t believe it that I completed the above essay in one day, while I was still suffering from jetlag. My wife says that I must have been inspired by my experience in Hong Kong last week.
Actually, part of the inspiration comes from one of my faithful readers. He specifically asked me if I could write something about the feelings of nothingness of workers living in suburban Los Angeles. This proves that your feedback helps shape the content of my writings. So, please e-mail (email@example.com) me with your suggestions and feedback.