“In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while” (Henry David Thoreau).
WE DON’T GET OUR LETTERS AT THE POST OFFICE ANYMORE. Still, Thoreau’s point is well taken. As our “inward life fails,” we depend all the more obsessively on external communications. And is there not a suggestion here as to why the many social media of our day are so popular? If there was a healthy inwardness about us, would we need such an outward avalanche of tweets and texts?
Don’t misunderstand me. Social connections are vitally important. We need to maintain our relationships and empathize with other people. But I believe our understanding of others is impoverished when we spend too little time meditating inwardly. Walter Lippman made the point well: “We forge gradually our greatest instrument for understanding the world — introspection. We discover that humanity may resemble us very considerably — that the best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbors is to know ourselves.”
But introspection (at least the healthy kind) is hard. As Dag Hammarskjöld said in Markings, “The longest journey is the journey inwards.” Inwardness requires not only concentrated thought but also honesty. Many years of meditation wouldn’t do a person any good if he didn’t deal honestly with the truth he discovered about himself.
With these cautions in mind, however, let’s go back to our original point: inwardness is important. It should be given more priority than we usually give it. “Goodness consists not in the outward things we do, but in the inward thing we are” (Edwin Hubbell Chapin). The busier we are, the more we need to be reminded that as important as “doing” (or conduct) is, “being” (or character) is even more important.
The challenge, of course, is to bring our inward and outer lives into alignment, so that our private introspection produces a public persona consistent with the principles we cherish inwardly. Integrity, which basically means “oneness,” is one of life’s great goals.
“Give me beauty in the inward soul, and may the outward and inward man be one” (Plato).