“Man is not made for defeat… A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Those haunting words come to us from Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea, one of the simplest and most stirring man-against-nature stories ever told. After months of failing to bring home a catch Santiago, an elderly Cuban fisherman, sails out into the Gulf Stream alone. At long last he hooks a fish, and not just any fish, but the most gigantic marlin he’s ever seen in his life. For two days and two nights Santiago is locked in an agonizing struggle with the fish, finally harpooning the creature and lashing its body to the side of his little skiff. However, the marlin’s blood attracts the attention of sharks, and Santiago struggles heroically but vainly to fend them off from his prize. While killing several, Santiago loses much of the marlin to the predators and returns to his village empty-handed. Bloodied, battered, and bruised, with nothing to show for it.
This, to Hemingway, was what a man was.
What made a man a man wasn’t necessarily success, or a long life, or even a very pleasant one. It was a life with integrity – a life where you stuck by your principles even to the point of your own destruction. Santiago isn’t thought of as a great man because of his skill or because of his success, but because of his refusal to give up the fight. Heck, Santiago, in his battle with the marlin, winds up respecting the fish so much that he declares no one will be allowed to eat him. While his battle with the sharks would make the vow unnecessary it’s clear he would have stuck with it regardless. It’s not about feeding the village or even ending his unlucky streak – it’s about the principle. That same relentless dedication can be seen everywhere from Saving Private Ryan to The Godfather trilogy to 3:10 To Yuma to 12 Angry Men to even The Terminal. While the exact values change (obedience, family, duty, truth, obligation), the message remains the same. A man needs to fight for something, what that might be isn’t important, but he does need to fight. Life’s a battle and a code is your banner. It signifies who you are and what you fight for, and just as with soldiers back in the day, to lose that banner is to lose that battle.
Because a Code Levels the Playing Field
Now for all the melodrama of books and movies, chances are you’re not a rebel or ronin or Maximus-Decimus-Meridius-commander-of-the-Armies-of-the-North-General-of-the-Felix-Legions-loyal-servant-to-the-true-emperor-Marcus-Arelius-father-to-a-mudered-son-husband-to-a-murdered-wife-who-will-have-his-vengeance-in-this-life-or-the-next (though I’m just guessing here). Nevertheless, a code of conduct isn’t just restricted to epic heroes and villains, it’s for all of us. Indeed, one of the most important parts of having a code is that it puts us on equal footing with these great men. A standard of principles means that we’re measuring life not in length or prosperity but in passion, courage, and honesty. Everyone’s got a fair shot at true greatness. The twenty-something grinding away at some dead-end job still has just as much a chance to live with integrity and honor as a billionaire or a rock star. At the end of the day, it turns nobility into something you earn, not something you’re born with.
Just look at anyone who you respect in your life. Chances are they’ll fit this description perfectly. They might be powerful and successful, and they might not be, but what you know for certain is that they’re good and strong people regardless.
Because a Code Keeps Us Honest
We’re living in a comparatively chaotic world with increasingly less social pressure to act or think a certain way. While that freedom is certainly opening the door for plenty of free thought and fresh perspectives, it can be easy to slip into hypocrisy or self-delusion – imagining we’re one thing when we’re actually another. A code, a set of concrete standards which we can objectively understand and vocalize, not only guides us but convicts us. In a world where there’s often no one but ourselves to keep us accountable, our codes serve to keep us on track, or at the very least get us to rethink our most fundamental values.
The Vikings believed that the only way to enter Valhalla, their afterlife, was to die in battle. While that’s probably asking a bit much from modern day men, the core principle is the same: If you were to die right now, would you be proud of what you were doing in the moments before? Would the story of your life match up with what you claimed to have valued?
Because a Code Forces Us to Evolve
Life’s already hard enough without us drawing lines in the sand, and make no mistake, that’s what having a code means. Sailing with the wind, living by society’s standards rather than your own – that’s all going to be an easier way to live, and having a strict, well-defined code, regardless of what it entails, will eventually put you at odds with the world. That’s not going to be pleasant, but it is going to be good for you. The resulting struggles (if they don’t kill you) will only make you stronger. Character’s like a muscle that it needs to be worked out, and muscle can only be built up after being torn. The only way to strengthen your morality is to force yourself into moral crises, ethical dilemmas, and hard choices, pushing yourself to grapple with these issues. Let’s be real here, with or without a personal code life’s still going to throw those tough decisions at you – how prepared are going to be? The hard fact of the matter is that we need to get good at being good.
And that sometimes means failure. Even the most strong-willed person is going to fall short of their own standards. That’s simply inevitable, but the good news is that even here, there’s opportunity. Messing up gives us an ability to understand who we are. It can be easy to focus on our strengths, facing our weaknesses, not so much. Still, it’s something that we have to do to grow as human beings. If the commitment’s real we’re going to pick ourselves up again and get right back to it, now armed with the knowledge of how to avoid our past errors.
Because the Code We Make Makes Us
Perhaps most importantly, a code of conduct doesn’t just put us at odds with the world, it helps us overcome it.
In his play Julius Caesar, Shakespeare writes “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The brave experience death only once.” The idea here is that a betrayal of one’s principles is, in a certain sense, a kind of death. You are not you without the things you believe in. Those words, spoken by Caesar, were in response to his wife’s premonition that something terrible was about to befall him. And indeed, on the Ides of March, Caesar would find himself betrayed by his closest friends and brutally murdered on the floor of the senate.
And in spite of her prophecy he still went. Caesar had built his life on ambition and courage – better to die today with those qualities than years later without them.
While it might sound more appealing to play life by ear (and as mentioned, it’d certainly be easier), a man who takes the path of least resistance isn’t really a man. Being a victim of circumstance, being a slave to random chance – again, that’s not living, or at the very least, not living life to the way it was meant to be lived.
But what happens when we hold on? If we can stick to our guns, no matter what the universe throws at us, whether it’s the forces of nature, the hell of battle, or all the tiny jabs and grinds of daily life, doesn’t that prove that something’s stronger than all that? That the universe can’t just break us?
So really and truly challenge yourself.
Find out what it is that you absolutely care about – what you wouldn’t be you without. Be open to fresh perspectives, whether it’s Bushido, the Boy Scouts, or something more modern. And it doesn’t even have to be sweepingly heroic, just so long as it’s right. Take this simple rule for example: “Never make a promise you don’t have every intention of keeping.”
Of course, holding that principle means anything or nothing unless we stick with it to the bitter end. With that in mind, say you tell a friend you’re going to help him move Saturday but that beautiful girl you’ve been after tells you that she’d like to hang out on the same day. No matter what, you would be forced to sacrifice that date to keep your promise – that’s what makes you a man of principle. No matter how much it inconveniences us (or outright hurts us), we have to stand for something.
Take your time, but when you do get it figured it out, etch it in stone. There’s a fine line between being dedicated and just hard-headed, but if you can walk it there’s nothing in this world that’ll be able to take it from you. Be the kind of person Hemingway would’ve admired: Someone who could be destroyed, but never defeated.