“Life is real! Life is earnest!” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).
WOULD THOSE WHO KNOW YOU BEST DESCRIBE YOU AS AN “EARNEST” PERSON? Perhaps you wouldn’t want them to. But if you wouldn’t, think again. In the real world, there happen to be some very serious issues that must be dealt with. The ability to concentrate on these issues earnestly is not a liability but an asset. Consider three aspects of earnestness, all of which are good character traits.
Attentiveness. Earnest people are those who know how to focus their minds and give laser-like attention to important subjects. Unlike the careless and the distracted, the earnest understand that some things require our undivided attention and our concentrated thought.
Seriousness. Allan Bloom once wrote, “A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear.” Life surely has a light side, but other parts of it are more weighty. To be earnest is to know when to be serious. It is to recognize those times when life asks us to make supreme decisions.
Resoluteness. This is, perhaps, the most practical and beneficial side of earnestness. Many of us can be attentive and serious, at least occasionally, but not many of us are resolute. That is, we don’t pursue serious goals with an appropriate degree of determination. We’re indecisive, weak-willed, and far too easily defeated by insignificant obstacles. So we need to honor the dogged determination of the earnest person: the fellow who is serious about reaching the goals that he has decided upon. “A man in earnest finds the means, or if he cannot find them, creates them” (William Ellery Channing).
Yes, some folks are earnest to a fault. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.) But I suggest that for every person like that, there are many others who have the opposite problem. In an age when the biggest of all big businesses is entertainment, most of us would do well to bring ourselves back to sobriety more often and address ourselves earnestly to the critical concerns of life. Tomorrow may be different, but today, in which direction do you need to make the adjustment?
“Intermingle jest with earnest” (Francis Bacon).