In 1967 Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote a song with an intentionally limited vocal range so that it could be sung by their friend and bandmate Ringo Starr. Joe Cocker loved the song, changed the arrangement to suit his unique voice and sang it to his friends at Woodstock. That version was so iconic that the producers of a television show about friendship, The Wonder Years, made it their opening theme. As you face Ben’s virtue of resolution, I suggest you make your anthem With A Little Help From My Friends.
When I tackled Franklin’s thirteen virtues, I was a lone wolf. I had no circle of co-seekers, no conclave of friends, and no shoulders upon which to lean: I was alone (okay not completely, but I’ll get there in a moment). By the time the week dedicated to resolution arrived, my isolation was showing. I was struggling in my virtuous pursuit. Several weeks into my project, burdened at my job, active with my children and suffering from a real bout of over commitment, I was, at the beginning of the week dedicated to resolution, decidedly irresolute.
So what was I to do to get back on track? In the spirit of the words of John, Paul, Ringo, and Joe (and approximately 138 other professional singers who have covered the song), I decided to go looking for some friends because I needed their help to get by.
First, to say I was alone is a bit disingenuous. I had a contemporary ethical guide, Chris Levan, to provide me a twenty first century interpretation of Ben’s eighteenth century virtues. Usually our discussions were by email but I decided I needed a face to face on resolution. Over a glass of wine, Chris told me that resolution is about second chances. He told me of the story of Héloïse and Abelard, star-crossed medieval French lovers who survived scandal, castration, ex-communication and life-long separation, to have one of histories most celebrated romances. Eventually they were buried side-by-side and their eternal resting place became a shrine for lovers. Not bad given the whole castration thing.
Okay, so I understood second chances, but that didn’t explain my own lack of resolution. I decided to ask one of the people most familiar with me and all my faults: I talked to my mother. When I explained the issue, she told me that one of my problems was a distinct inability to say no. Asked by someone to take on a task or obligation, no matter what I was already doing, I would agree. Who knows the reason: maybe some innate need to be liked or some fear of rejection? Whatever my motivation, I have a long history of saying yes to all requests. The result was that I was constantly stretched too thin. When it comes to resolution, this flaw can be fatal (metaphorically).
So with a little help from my friends–mothers can be friends too–I decided that I would give myself a second chance by starting to do more by doing less. I recognized the irony, but Franklin didn’t say, “resolve to do everything”. He said, “Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.” The trick, for me, was to resolve to say no–no to being overburdened, no to being overcommitted, and no to being overworked—so that I could say yes. Yes to the things that were important, yes to the things that mattered and yes to performing the things that I “ought” (as I saw them). My renewed focus helped me to commit and to be resolute. For a time anyway: I eventually started to say yes to everything again…we are imperfect creatures.
So what did I learn from my week of resolution that I can offer you to assist on your Franklin frolic? Let’s think of trying to be resolute as a military campaign because the quest for moral perfection is like a long, drawn out war against the forces of vacillation, sloth and apathy (amongst other enemies).
First, don’t fight a campaign on too many fronts. I had to learn to concentrate my efforts; being resolute about the few, important things is better than being unsuccessful trying to do a great many. Limit your focus and increase your odds of victory. A good general also recognizes that the loss of the battle is not the end of a war. Resolution is, as Chris told me, all about second chances. If you fail, if you are irresolute, if you lose the battle then consider the words of another song, this one made famous by Nat King Cole. “Pick yourself up, Take a deep breath, Dust yourself off, and start all over again.”
Finally, good leaders seek allies and form coalitions. I know I have suggested this in other posts, but it is fundamental to resolution. Wellington used his allies against Napoleon, and Hitler was defeated by many nations not one. When your resolve starts to wane, follow Churchill, Wellington, John, Paul and Ringo: get by with a little help from your friends.
Cameron Gunn is an author and prosecutor living in Canada. His attempt to live Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues, was chronicled in BEN & ME: From Temperance to Humility – Stumbling Through Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues, One Unvirtuous Day at a Time, released by Perigee Press in September 2010. He is a frequent public speaker having been a longtime faculty member of Canada’s largest continuing legal education seminar on criminal law topics, The National Criminal Law Program and a frequent lecturer for the National Judicial Institute of Canada.