The Flame That Burns
Some preach moderation while others urge you to "go for it." But which one is right for you? Depends on what you want!
A quote widely attributed to Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching tells us, “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
Pragmatically, that makes perfect sense. Given a fixed amount of fuel, one could keep the flame on a moderate setting which would burn the fuel slowly. Or they could turn it up high and burn through it pretty quickly. Of course, this would generate more heat while it was on.
What Does This Have to Do with What You Want?
See the flame, be the flame.
Given that the path of our lives is directed by the choices we make, we each have a choice available to us regarding how we burn our own “flame.” Simply, we can choose to live a moderate life, or we can choose to “burn hot” and pursue everything with high passion and great energy.
We see both of these approaches to life all the time. Many of our friends and acquaintances tend to stay close to the “middle -of-the-road” and live conservatively. They don’t spend extravagantly. They quietly live their lives, do their jobs, love their families, and find peace and satisfaction.
Then there are the “Type A” people. Everything is important, crucial, critical! Nothing is just what it is. They seem to be moving at lightning speed all the time with boundless energy and unbridled passion. They are always out in front of any crowd, chanting the loudest, working the hardest. They may indulge in many different kinds of excesses. They always seem either ecstatically happy, or deeply depressed. They don’t know the definition of “medium.”
Neither is “Right”
As with so many things, which is right is determined by which is right for you. Which most effectively brings you what you want? (Which is why we’re addressing it here!)
Many of us desire a quiet, peaceful life. Those tend to live in remote, quiet places. Small towns. Woods. Mountain regions. They work at a job that pays enough to maintain their conservative needs. They raise their children to share their values. They conduct social friendships and make effort not to cause waves. In return they get to celebrate the successes and accomplishments of their families and enjoy their life of moderation.
Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Others feel the need to be number one, the leader, the activist, always running faster and trying harder to get more done. They don’t worry if their life is vividly on display for others to see. Some seek thrills by climbing mountains, driving race cars, participating in extreme sports. Extreme is a very important concept for them. They always want to stretch out to the extremes. They crave “living on the edge” where there is always danger of slipping over that edge and falling into the abyss.
By now you’ve probably got a pretty good idea which of these groups you live in. Which spoke louder to you? Which made you nod your head more vigorously? Which just felt right?
It’s a safe bet that “slow-burn” people don’t “get” the “fast-burn” ones and vice versa. As they speed by their more conservative counterparts, the passion players wonder how people can live like that? They’re missing out on the “juice,” the spice of life. They feel sorry for them.
Meanwhile, the moderates scratch their heads wondering how these madmen can keep up the pace. Why do they always feel the need to be so loud, so overwhelming, so publicly visible.
And so we come back to the equation. Does the flame that burns twice as bright burn half as long? Is it a given that the passion players are fated to early doom?
When I simply cite the name “Mick Jagger” what does that make you think? Here’s a man who has been radically successful for his entire life by being outrageous, by carving out the edge for multiple generations. Often controversial. In terms of burning, Mick Jagger has always been a veritable flame-thrower, a blast furnace.
At his next birthday this summer, Mick Jagger will turn 80.
So much for burning half as long. Here’s living proof that someone who feeds on passion, who eats excitement for lunch, can live a long, incredibly successful life.
On the other hand we can think of so many celebrities who left us way too soon. Popular actors, singers, sports stars, and others who died young. The Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman springs to mind. What a nice, pleasant guy. Great actor. Gone way too soon.
Characterizing the Choice
So when thinking about your own personal flame, it doesn’t serve to think in terms of whether you want to burn half as long, or half as bright. One actually has little to do with the other. The arbiter of this choice has to be your personal preference.
Let me emphasize that word “your.” Own your choice. Don’t let others persuade you to try to be “the other way.” You’ll never achieve it. You’re better off kindly and respectfully asking those people to mind their own business.
What Do You Want?
As always, we come back to the core question. What do you want?
Do you want to be the loudest voice in the room? The smartest kid in class? The leader of the proverbial pack? Then go for it. Go for it and don’t let anyone stop you or delay you. Follow your desire to burn fast and hard, live out at the edge, or whatever your definition of living an aggressive, assertive, demonstrative life.
Does all that noise repel you? Do you prefer the quiet of home, the nurturing of family, the joy of great friends? Would you rather sit and discuss recent events with your circle instead of riding motorcycles with the local biker club? Do you find the greatest satisfaction in watching your children grow and achieve their goals? Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.
My strongest recommendation is that you not let anyone tell you otherwise. Your choice of what to do with the energy in your life is completely yours. Be guided by what you find most important, most satisfying, most gratifying to you.
The flame that burns twice as bright… burns. So does the moderate flame.
Hello Howard. I'm enjoying reading 'What Do You Want". It reminds me of Wayne Dyer. One of my favorites from him is 'What other people think of you is none of your business.'
It was nice 'chatting' with you in Writer's Office Hours. I'm glad you have brought your voice to Substack.