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Attaining excellence


The Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658) wrote a book of stratagems for attaining excellence in a competitive world. A Pocket Mirror for Heroes reflects the individual as he really is and who he ought to be. It provides an image of ethical and moral perfection.

The 17th century hero, according to Gracian, was “the consummate person, ripe and perfect: accurate in judgment, mature in taste, attentive in listening, wise in sayings, shrewd in deeds, the center of all perfection.”

We live in a different world, a changing millennium. The modern hero must have those qualities, but he should contend with multiple, overwhelming situations. There are elements of deceit, danger and crises on many levels. To survive our daily challenges, one should proceed with caution; learn how to adapt to circumstances and take nothing for granted.

Life is very difficult, but one should not be paralyzed by fear and anxiety. Rather, one should move forward and “savor the seasons” and the perfection and beauty of the universe.

According to Gracian, extremes meet. The seed of wisdom is found in desengaño. One should show or conceal it depending on the situation. One should learn how to distinguish a quality from its shadow.

There is no equivalent to desengaño in English. It implies an awakening to truth, moral clear-sightedness that is tempered by skepticism.

It is not enough to be gifted or graceful. One must know how to manage that talent and adapt it to the age in which one lives.

People are both “what they are and what they seem.” There two kinds of reality — the inner and the outer qualities — wisdom, courage, wit — should be combined with quickness, elegance, variety, grace and a charming manner.

Among the hero’s stratagems for reaching distinction are the following:

1.) Conceal your intentions.

2.) Hide your depths.

3.) Understanding the origin of greatness.

4.) A sublime intellect breeds excellent taste.

5.) Being the best.

6.) Excellence from being first.

7.) A heroic occupation.

8.) Know your highest gift.

9.) Measure your luck.

10.) Know when to retire.

11.) Affectation is the dead weight of greatness.

12.) Win favors and goodwill.

13.) Grace enhances courage and prudence.

Wisdom is essential in our lives. We should measure life as though we had both a short and a long life to live.

“The age of maturity is destined to contemplation for the soul acquires strength as the body loses it, and the superior part of us grows stronger… In maturity, we can look back prudently and see fully what we merely glimpsed during our youth.

“Seeing makes us knowledgeable, but contemplation makes us wise.”

On another level, here are practical pointers for simplifying one’s lifestyle.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We live in an age that reads too much to be wise and thinks too much to be beautiful… We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.”

These perceptive lines from his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, were written many decades ago, yet they still apply to our modern life.

As one moves from childhood to adulthood and eventually the golden years, one collects an assortment of things — material possessions, emotional baggage, and friends. The accumulation continues until a saturation point.

It is easy to become dependent on the things one owns and feels helpless without them.

There is a big difference between needs and desires.

It is important to have discernment and restraint. To seek a level of balance, one needs objectivity and some detachment.

When one hoards things, there is clutter in physical, mental and emotional spaces.

Tied down by possessions, one cannot move and think freely. How can one savor new experiences and expand the perspective?

One gets caught in a time warp.

What are collectibles and non-collectibles?

Selected artworks, paintings, antiques, medals, achievement awards, rare books, vintage furniture and exquisite clothes, heirloom jewelry and costumes, delicate icons, crystals, commemorative stamps and coins, family photographs are worth keeping for posterity. If one has the space to keep them all. Storage is expensive.

However, travel souvenirs, old plaques and frames, obsolete electronic gadgets, appliances, rickety bicycles, old clothes and bags, and files should be discarded regularly.

There is a limited amount of quality and quantity in one’s life.

Moving office and house would be the best time to downsize and declutter. Space constraints forces one to be discriminating. Sort, sift, and select sparingly.

People derive pleasure from buying things. Retail therapy. The novelty wears off then one is stuck with clutter.

The process of selection is painstaking and painful. Sentimental things are hard to let go. “Frenemies,” the toxic crabs, should be released, too.

One must learn to release the past. Keep the memories fresh in the mind. But the confining barnacles stunt growth and movement. The unnecessary objects should be cut drastically.

It is a matter of will… and some tears.

Maria Victoria Rufino is an artist, writer and businesswoman. She is president and executive producer of Maverick Productions.

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