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            THE WORD "IF" consists of just two letters, but it's a big word on which so much often depends. "If only I hadn't done that!", we sometimes say, or "If it had only turned out like that instead of like this," etc. Thus, we are torn between what is and what might have been.

            Because the future is not ours to see, it is inappropriate to make promises (which concern the future, not the past or the present), for between the making and the fulfillment of a promise, many things are sure to happen― some of them unforeseen― which might easily prevent the keeping of the promise. Thus, promises, when made at all, should be made with a qualifying "if' or "on condition that," so that, if something comes up to prevent the promise being carried out, there will be a reasonable excuse or justification for it, such as "There was an accident on the highway, and I got stuck in the traffic, and had to wait," or (if it really did happen), "I got a flat tire." Such mitigating circumstances are understandable and acceptable, as they are beyond our control, and were not intentionally brought about.

            In making promises, as in all things, the Golden Rule should govern our conduct: "Do unto others as you would like them to do to you." Making promises with an 'if clause’ can be and often is used as a way out of the promise; but, since we are not very pleased if someone uses that device upon us, we should think twice before doing it to others.

            There are cases, as I have shown above, when promises cannot be kept. But, as far as possible, our given word should be of sufficient value to us that when we make any kind of arrangements with others, we should treat them as important even if they are only minor things. For if we treat small things as important the probability is that we shall also treat bigger things as important. And observant people will come to know us as dependable, so that if there is a need for assistance and someone reliable, people will automatically think of someone they know who can be trusted, rather than of someone who has let them down in the past.

            I am writing about Dharma here, and I presume that anyone reading this will be concerned enough about their own integrity to realize the importance of keeping their word to others. We can all see room for improvement in the world, and would like it to be a better place to live in. But how can we reasonably expect it to get better if fulfilling our commitments is not important to us?

            Have you noticed how hard it is for some people to apologize? Is it that they have such a high opinion of themselves that to admit to making a mistake or being in the wrong would amount to something like self-destruction? Is it a matter of maintaining a facade at all costs that saying sorry is just inconceivable and out of the question? Is it that they are so insecure that they are afraid to bend a little bit? Or is it that they are so proud that it is beneath their dignity to apologize to 'lesser beings'? Whatever the reason, it is not a positive characteristic. And some people will go to amazing lengths to preserve their 'face', piling more mistakes on top of the mistakes they were so unwilling to admit, and the problem becomes compounded thereby.

            It is unpleasant to be with such people, as they often try to put the blame onto others for things that they themselves have done. It is also very difficult to discuss and reason with them, as they soon 'clam up' and go on the defensive, feeling as if they're being attacked. They become prisoners of their own pride.

            At the other end of the spectrum are people who are forever apologizing, as if they are afraid of causing anyone the slightest inconvenience―"Sorry for breathing in your air space," kind of thing. Their subservience and obsequiousness becomes quite tedious; they behave like beaten dogs with their tails between their legs. We get the feeling that they will do anything to please, but their ingratiating ways lack sincerity, and it is easy to imagine that they could not be relied upon, and would betray others, at the drop of a hat.

            Apologizing from the heart and not merely from the tongue means exposing oneself, and there is a risk that others will misunderstand, and take one for a weakling. But there are dangers in everything; life is dangerous, and so, if we realize we have said or done something wrong, and have upset or hurt someone, the only right thing to do is to try to make amends as soon as possible, either by a straightforward "I'm sorry for what I said or did; please excuse me and understand that I spoke in haste, and didn't mean it," or by doing something to demonstrate one's contrition.

            There are many ways to speak, and not just with the tongue; and if our words of apology are not followed by appropriate actions, the words probably don't mean very much. The sooner we can correct our mistakes, in some measure, the better, for the longer we leave it, the harder it becomes; time doesn't always resolve things, and sometimes it compounds them. It might be compared with cement: when it is freshly laid, it can be made to go where we desire, but when it has set and hardened, it cannot be changed.

            Some people find it hard to forgive injuries done to them by others, and apologies are lost on them. But this should not deter us from apologizing to them if we have cause to, for it is just as important―and maybe more so―to forgive ourselves as it is to be forgiven by others. If we carry around a head full of guilty feelings about the harm we have done to others, we will never be at peace with ourselves. I’ve several times written letters of apology to people who I’d hurt years before, and felt a great sense of relief at doing so. Carrying unresolved grudges and feelings of guilt is both useless and injurious to our mental equilibrium. But conscience―which is more developed and sensitive in some than in others (indeed, some people seem not to have any at all, but it is there nevertheless, buried deep in the dark recesses of the mind, awaiting its germination)―does not permit us to go on making mistakes and doing wrong forever.

            Flattery is another form of speech to beware of, as it is seldom sincere, and comes usually from an ulterior motive―something is wanted or hoped for in return. It is pleasing to hear nice things about ourselves, is it not? (Some people become addicted to it, and crave more.) But we should know ourselves well enough to be able to distinguish between genuine praise and hollow flattery. We should also try to minimize the amount of flattery we lay upon others.

            There are surely good things about anyone for us to perceive and praise; of course, we all have negative qualities, but this is not because we want them; they cling to us like barnacles to a ship's hull, and impede our progress through life in a similar manner. To focus on people's negatives, and ignore their positives, does not help us in any way, as would paying attention to their good points.

            It is easy to fall into the habit of complaining and faultfinding, and hard to break it once we have gotten into it. The faults of others are easy to perceive, while it is hard to see our own, especially since we rationalize, disguise, and refuse to face them.

            We like to be praised, but are often niggardly in praising others. To develop the antidote to blaming and censoring others, we might say to ourselves something like this: "This person has qualities that annoy me, but he's also a human being, struggling through life, just like me, and wishes to be well and happy, too. Therefore, let me overlook his bad points, and try to find something worth praising about him," and if we look closely enough, we will surely find things about him―or anyone― that are appealing and praise worthy. If we have seen something of our own positive qualities, we might feel that others have theirs, too, even though they might not be aware of them themselves; it might even be possible for us to help others discover their own good qualities, in which case we shall have done them the greatest service possible.

            There is a story of a housewife who once served chicken feed to her family for dinner, and when they thought she had gone mad and protested about it, she calmly said: "I didn't think you’d notice, because I've been cooking for you for the past twenty years, and trying to please you, but never once have I received a word of praise from any of you for my efforts!"

            Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration ― twenty years, and no word of praise!? We often do take people for granted, however, and relationships grow stale and dull because of this, whereas, if we would bestow a little praise now and then, where it is deserved, and some encouragement when needed, just to show that we care, there would be that essential element of joy and togetherness that is beyond price. Everyone likes to be appreciated, but we must give out before taking in, as is the usual order in sowing and reaping; we cannot expect to reap where we have not sown.

            I knew an old couple in their eighties who lived alongside their daughter and her husband in a 'granny-flat'. Because their son-in-law worked long hours, and had little time or energy for taking care of the grounds around the house, they helped out by mowing the lawns, weeding the gardens, and keeping things in pretty good shape. But never once did their son-in-law thank them for their efforts, or told them how nice things looked. One time, however, when the oldies were unwell, their daughter mowed the lawns, and her husband was later heard to say: "She's made a very good job of that!" Clearly, his approval depended upon who did the job, and not how it was done, which was sad, was it not?

            I would like to end this off with an anonymous little poem, entitled:


If with pleasure you are viewing
Any work a man is doing,
If you like him and you trust him,
Tell him now.
Don't withhold your approbation
Till the parson makes oration,
As he lies with snowy lilies o'er his brow.
For no matter how you shout it,
He won't really care about it,
He won't know how many tear drops you have shed;
If you think some praise is due him,
Now's the time to slip it to him,
For he cannot read the tombstone when he's dead.
More than fame and more than money
Is the comment warm and sunny,
And the hearty warm approval of a friend;
For it gives to life a flavor,
And it makes us stronger, braver,
And it gives us heart and courage to the end.
If he earns your praise, bestow it;
If you like him, let him know it;
Let the words of true encouragement be said;
Do not wait till life is over,
And he's underneath the clover,
For he cannot read the tombstone when he's dead.

            "The source of Man's unhappiness is his ignorance of nature. The pertinacity with which he clings to blind opinion imbibed in his infancy .... and the consequent prejudice that warps his mind .... appear to doom him to continual error.... He takes the tone of his ideas on the authority of others, who are themselves in error, or who have an interest in deceiving him. To remove the Cimmerian darkness .... to guide him out of this Cretan labyrinth, requires the clue of Ariadne, with all the love she could bestow on Theseus. It exacts a most undaunted courage .... a persevering resolution.

            "The most important of our duties, then, is to seek means by which we may destroy the delusions that can never do more than mislead us. The remedies for these evils must be sought in Nature herself. It is only in the abundance of her resources that we can rationally expect to find antidotes to the mischief brought upon us by an ill-directed, overpowering enthusiasm. It is time these remedies were sought; it is time to look the evil boldly in the face, to examine its foundations, to scrutinize its superstructure. Reason, with its faithful guide experience, must attack in their entrenchments those prejudices of which the human race has been too long the victim....

            "Let us try to inspire man with courage, with respect for his reason, with an inextinguishable love for truth, to the end that he may learn to consult his experience, and no longer be the dupe of an imagination led astray by authority .... that he may learn to found his morals on his nature, on his wants, on the real advantage of society; that he may dare to love himself; that he may become a virtuous and rational being, in which case he cannot fail to be happy."


(d'Holbach, German philosopher, 1723-1789).

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Last Updated on:  03/01/2001 04:02 AM