“Let a man in a garret but burn with enough intensity and he will set fire to the world” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).
IF A PERSON IS MOVED BY ZEAL, THEN THAT PERSON IS A POWERFUL FORCE, EVEN WHEN ACTING ALONE. The human heart is capable of intense concern. It can be fired with a fervor so hot that it would sacrifice the gift of life itself in order to gain its goal.
Zeal, of course, is a good thing only if the object of its desire is good. It’s a powerful tool, but in and of itself, its value is neutral. Zeal takes its value from the use to which it is put, or the causes in which its services are enlisted. If good can be accomplished by the heart filled with zeal, so can evil; so it’s critical that we maintain vigilant watch over the moral quality of our desires. The possibility that we might come to the end of our lives and realize we’ve used our zeal to achieve unworthy ends is a possibility we should want to avoid. It pays to be careful about what we want while we live in this world.
Yet even when the things that we’re zealous about are good and honorable, there is something else to consider: our zeal must not be blind or unthinking. For example, it’s good to be patriotic, generally speaking. But if patriotic zeal is blind and uncritical (“My country, right or wrong!”), then we have something less than might be desired. We need not only to support worthy causes, but we need to know why we support them. Our enthusiasm needs to be an enlightened one.
And then, of course, our zeal must be disciplined. Like literal fire, the fire of zeal must not only be stoked; it must be kept inside the boiler. Our enthusiasm must be trained, channeled, directed, and governed — or else it’ll do more harm than good. Zeal may be one of the forces by which we do our work in this world, but it’s not the only force. No matter how passionate we are, there’ll be times when our zeal must be held in check while we employ some other, equally valuable, tool or character trait, such as patience or humility or courtesy.
But finally, the main use of zeal should always be the improvement of our own character and conduct. The world needs saving, no doubt, but truth to tell, most of us could use a little saving ourselves.
“Have therefore first zeal to better thyself and then mayst thou have zeal to thy neighbor” (Thomas à Kempis).