Here is a beautiful sentence by Xunzi — beautiful even in translation — on the three keys to self-cultivation:
Of all the ways to order the temperament and train the mind [xin: heart-mind], none is more direct than to follow ritual [Li, propriety], none more vital than to find a teacher, none more godlike than to learn to love one thing alone.” (Hsün Tzu, “Improving Yourself,” p.26-27, tr. Watson)
In any field of action, we follow the proprieties and conventions. In the professions that would involve studying the work of colleagues and masters in their fields, watching how they do things, speaking with appropriate formality, and developing the mental habits that lead to approval and honor in the field. Proprieties and conventions, the complex codes of what’s done and not done, said and not said, are invaluable guides in all human activities, and we grow through observing them and letting them work on us. But they are not enough: we need a teacher, someone more experienced, to illuminate our way through the labyrinth of Li by virtue of their years of experience and developed skill. But even that is not enough: what sustains us through all the pitfalls and disappointments of our difficult endeavor has to be love, whether of an idea, a person, or activity.
So far this seems obvious. What is striking is Xunzi’s insistence on loving one thing alone — a single-minded devotion that orders our temperament by giving it direction. A human life has so many things pulling on it: the claims of livelihood and survival, of pleasure, and of a mob of people. It is easy to drown ourselves in confusion. Instead, what if we were to focus our energies on one thing only, on something that is big enough to order the many dizzying tugs on our attentions? Xunzi means something like “virtue,” or “human excellence” — in much the same way as Socrates might want us to concentrate on “justice.” Indeed, almost anything might bring order to the temperament and train the heart-mind: an athlete might dedicate himself wholly to his sport, an artist to her painting, a mother to her children. In the film “Citizen Kane,” the interviewer/reporter expresses surprise to find that Kane’s friend Bernstein is now rich. Bernstein shrugs it off: “Rich? It’s easy to get rich, if that’s ALL you want to do.” But even dedication is not enough: it needs the other two keys to temper it — Li to bring moderation and attentiveness, a teacher to give perspective and common-sense — otherwise we will have a fanatic. We may need both Li and a teacher to learn to love one thing alone, for most people are mired in distractions and do not find it natural to do that. Xunzi is always realistic about our need for guidance.
In Halldor Laxness’ masterpiece of sardonic lyricism, Independent People, there is a small boy who is destined to be a great poet and who, at an early stage in the book, only wants to see other countries. The narrator interjects with one of his quietly oracular comments:
In the blood of some people there is bred only one wish, and they are the children of happiness, for life is exactly big enough for one wish, not for two. (Halldor Laxness, Independent People, p.333)
Some people are lucky to be born with a vocation, and they are godlike because they have it fully-fledged without having to struggle to find it; Xunzi thinks that even to learn to have it would be godlike, because it is so rare. Laxness hits upon the profound truth that indeed there is always room for one wish; the single-minded will probably be successful, and will realize who they are meant to be. Both Laxness and Xunzi imply that the plight of most people is that we have more than one wish, which life cannot accommodate — and because of that we will not be children of happiness. We will always be wistful about what else we could have been, nagged by what else we should have chosen. This is especially poignant for modern people, who have too many things they should be — perfect parent, writer, artist, lawyer, friend, citizen — and are always rattling between all their different roles, without an overarching vision to harness them all together. It is comforting to think that life is big enough for one wish — exactly big enough, if we only knew what it was.