Principles Versus Practice

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

Like many of us, my life is shaped, for a large part, by the principles I hold. They form the basis of many of my decisions (at least at the conscious level), and they help form my idea of myself, of my own personality.

Let’s first get clear what I mean by ‘principles’. I mean the practices that we use to shape our lives from an idealistic point of view. One of my principles, for example, is that I live my life as a vegetarian. I don’t eat animals. Another is that I don’t drink alcohol. Both of these principles are based on values and believes that are important to me, such as the ideal of not harming another being or the value of not numbing my own pain or masking my own discomfort by taking a narcotic. Yet, no matter how perfect the ideal might be, the principle behind it isn’t 100% bullet-proof, and the practice that flows from that principle even less so.

Take my ideal of not harming other beings, for example. I know that being a vegetarian means that my ecological footprint is much smaller, and that I can somehow comfort myself with the idea that no animal is getting killed to land on my plate. But at the same time, I know that there are many foods I still eat that require the killing of animals as part of the greater system, such as dairy (veal) and eggs (male chicks). And on a much larger scale, there are plants that I eat which may be grown on lands that were once rainforests. So my principle of being a vegetarian does not reflect my ideals completely.

Knowing that means that some of my principles have become somewhat flexible. My principles are there to function as the outward application of my values, and in some cases, the practical situation actually clashes with the principle, or several principles compete with each other, demanding me to make an on the spot decision.

Let me give you an example: I’m a vegetarian because I don’t want animals to die if it’s not necessary. This means I generally don’t buy any meat. I’m also raising children that, I hope, will one day learn to make up their own mind, and that I want to raise to make up their own mind. So occasionally, when we go out to eat, they can choose meat or fish on the menu. If they leave meat or fish on their plate that will be discarded if not eaten, I am also likely to eat it. I would feel way worse throwing meat or fish in the trash than eating it myself. Again a case of competing principles.

Having principles that guide me but don’t hold me captive is important to me, though I can imagine that to some people this might appear flaky. In my experience, the thing to keep in mind is the WHY behind the principle. If someone tells me they have really strong principles and that’s why they have to do X, Y and Z, the ‘have to’ in that statement would put me on guard. Is this something you’re choosing for yourself or something you’re demanding of yourself?

It can become tricky to seperate how well we stick to our principles from how we feel about ourselves, our self-worth. When your principles are really strict, you might feel like a failure if you don’t act in accordance with them. Then it’s important to keep in mind that we have principles in order to serve us, to help us be who we want to be.

I hold strongly to some principles: if I want to call myself a writer, I must write. At this time, that means putting out a blogpost at least twice a week, though there are other ways to fill that ideal as well. I don’t drink when I’m alone. Ever. (And only have a half glass a few times a year now).

But lately, many of the principles I usually hold to have dwindled. I value serving my children healthy balanced meals, but with the overwhelmed state I’ve been in, I’ve served more freezer pizza over the last two months than I usually do in a year. I try to keep away from coffee because it brings down my overall energy levels, but in the past two weeks, work has been so demanding that I’ve allowed myself some lenience to get the occasional boosts. Sometimes, it just takes too much effort to uphold the practice. That doesn’t mean I am denying the principle, I still believe in it, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean my ideals have changed, not at all. It just means that in this moment I’m allowing myself some room to ‘not be okay’ in, if that makes any sense. I’m allowing myself to slip up, fumble, let it go.

When I look back on my life, I don’t think there have been many times in which I’ve so deliberately and unapologetically allowed my own non-functioning. In the past weeks, I’ve expressed to my children, multiple times, that I’m just too tired to cook, or that I’ve completely run out of patience and am very sorry, or that any noise is too much noise. I’ve told my partner that I have a hard time staying with his stories, even if I want to. And I’ve told myself over and over again that ‘yes, it’s okay, this is not forever, you’ll be following your own principles and practices again after this time of rest and reflection.’

I hope you, too, can find the kindness and compassion to let your principles guide you when you want to follow, and let them take a step back when you can’t. It doesn’t make you any less of a person, on the contrary.

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