My first elementary lesson of duty is that of resignation to the laws of my nature, whatever they are; my first disobedience is to be impatient at what I am, and to indulge an ambitious aspiration after what I cannot be, to cherish a distrust of my powers, and to desire to change laws which are identical with myself. (Grammar of Assent, p. 347)
It’s hard to know where to begin in commenting upon this brief passage. It is just packed.
What is resignation to the laws of my nature? I think a good illustration would be to think of the madman who is convinced he has wings and tosses himself off a ledge with a false certainty that his powers of flight will deliver him from an inevitable sudden stop at the bottom of the cliff. So resignation to the laws of my nature would be to accept who and what I am and all that is encompassed in these things. I can’t be just anything; I can’t do just anything. This extends to more than the physical attributes we have. It’s not just about wings. We have limits and powers that we have a duty to accept—to which we must resign ourselves.
What is it to be impatient with what I am? It is to be dissatisfied with myself: with my abilities, with my performance of some task or other when I have made a good faith effort at it. It is wishing that I could be or do other things than those I can, or that I might have other weaknesses and flaws than the ones that plague me. This is not to say that I should be satisfied with mediocrity when I know that I can do better, nor that I should wallow in my weaknesses and vices because “that is just how I am.” But if I become angry with myself or with God because I have a tin ear and cannot play music well despite my wishes or because I happen to be tall and the world’s vehicles are cramped places designed for people of average height—if I become angry and impatient with myself or with God about such things (and a good many others; use your imagination), that is what Newman has in mind.
Cherishing a distrust of my powers is, I think, epitomized by a remark attributed to Descartes: “Doubt is the beginning of wisdom.” Nonsense! Doubt is the beginning of folly. It is the beginning of a pointless mistrust of one’s powers that ends in an impossibility to really live in the world at all if one is consistent about it. Consider: not even Descartes was so silly as to mistrust his powers so much as to wonder whether his dinner plate held steak or grass. But if he cannot trust his senses to tell him truthful things about the world, then the dumbest thing in the world is to start eating. He would never know what he is eating (or even if he is eating).
But there are other ways that we can distrust our powers, as when we deny that we are able to resist temptations, or when we absolve ourselves of responsibility to do good because we tell ourselves that we lack the ability or resources to actually do it.
None of these vices are good for us or for others. We are what we are. I must learn to love myself as I am or I will have a hard time loving others as they are; I must be content to do what I can rather than pout about what I can’t do.