Thursday Thought: On Subtraction

  “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.” — Horace

I once met a man who has all of the conventional trappings of success — money, health, material goods, etc. But when I asked him what loves most in life, rather than discussing his wealth, he said something that gave me a moment of pause.

“I love travelling. I love travelling because I travel to suffer.” 

We paused and looked at each other for a moment. He continued.

“I don’t stay in luxury hotels. I don’t ride around in taxis. I take the seedy trains. I take the fewest supplies I can. I go into the slums. But what results is usually the opposite of suffering. Yes, there are some difficult moments, but I’m reminded of how free one can feel without that burdens and trappings of every day. I’m reminded of the simple pleasures: of listening, of connecting via a smile. I’m reminded of what things really matter.” 

I held onto those words ever since that exchange.

It reminded me of one of my own practices. On a near daily basis I’ll look in the mirror into my own eyes and say “I wish you hardship. May you find new strength today.”

It’s a reminder that the hardship is necessary in order to continue this very delicate process of human refinement. I often think about how many brotherhoods and sisterhoods have a piece of polished gold, silver or marble as a prominent symbol in their organizations. These symbols are often designed to represent that at the end of life, one has hopefully chipped away at the debris — the hardness, the vices, the negativity — in order to become a kind and cultivated person.

But this process only occurs as move through the crucible periods of life. The moments of pressure and calls for a greater strength. Every difficult moment is an invitation.

Perhaps we can let go negative narrative or an obstacle to greater compassion. Perhaps we can let go of a tiny fragment of the pains of the past.

This is the power of subtraction.

Subtraction is the kin of discipline. Discipline is an extension of the word “disciple,” which means one who learns. So to cultivate discipline means to be willing to continue to live in the state of learning. To deny the things that would knock us off of our path of continued to growth.

So often, we think about joy as adding something into our lives. And sometimes it is the case that aspect must be added or fleshed out. But we often underestimate how equally impactful relinquishing the burdens that tie us down can be. It’s liberating; it’s lightening. And it underscores the fact that we add elements into our lives to offset burdens we often feel.

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free 

Michelangelo often reflected that making his masterful sculptures was bringing out the latent Beauty in an art piece rather never about adding or creating in the strict sense. Like a diamond, the artisanship comes from breaking away the debris.

And it is the same with unearthing our own life’s beauty. The difference between a poison and an antidote is usually in the dose.

So often, we aim for an excess of good in our lives.

But an excess of time can leave us listless and unfulfilled. An excess of nourishment will leave us ill. And an excess of ease will leave us lesser than our best selves.

When we don’t have difficulty best parts of our lives atrophy. This is not to say that subtraction is easy, or fun, or enjoyable. But it is beneficial.

Every day we spend refining, smoothing down our rough edges, is another day we actively create tomorrow’s strength, one we cannot appreciate until the future arrives — aiming for the ethereal moment when there is nothing left to subtract.

If you feel that there is someone who could benefit from this reflection, please forward on this article!

With gratitude,

Brenton