One of the best illustrations of this idea comes from Philip Pullman’s enchanting His Dark Materials trilogy. In Pullman’s alternate world, every person has an animal daemon, and their maturity is signified by the settling of its form. In childhood it can shape shift, but when a child matures, it settles in the form that represents the person its attached to. Lyra, one of the protagonists, doesn’t want this to happen.
“ “Why do daemons have to settle? Lyra said. “I want Pantalaimon to be able to change for ever. So does he.”
“Ah, they have always settled, and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of his changing about, and you’ll want a settled kind of form for him.”
“I never will!”
“Oh, you will. You’ll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there’s compensations for a settled form.”
“What are they?”
“Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She’s a seagull, and that means I’m a kind of seagull too. I’m not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I’m a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That’s worth knowing, that is. And when your daemon settles, you’ll know the sort of person you are.”
Childhood represents possibility. As youths, we spend our time exploring the sort of person we could be. That’s why we go through stages of being boisterous, of being introverted, of rebelling and conforming, of causing trouble and helping others. We’re experimenting with what it feels like to live as all these different people.
Adulthood, on the contrary, is concerned with acceptance. We make our choice about who we want to be and learn to live with it, or adapt accordingly.
Since my early twenties, I’ve seen myself as someone who has principles and lives by them. That’s who I decided I wanted to be, and to the best of my ability I’ve exterminated the part of me that is dishonourable and doesn’t align his actions with his beliefs.
Now, it’s easy for me to say this, to proclaim myself as principled and virtuous. It’s much harder—as I’ve discovered—to live like this. See, I’ve fallen into the trap of proclaiming myself as principled—mostly to myself—without having those principles put to the test.
But how exactly do we test whether a principle is really a principle we’re willing to stick with and uphold? How do we know that a belief isn’t just a cute set of words we pay lip service to in fair weather and jettison when times get tough? The answer is one word:
The best example I’ve come across recently is from a TV show. A group of people were put on an island and had to fend for themselves. Molly told me about one series where some of the participants were vegans. They didn’t stay that way. When the only food available was shellfish they gave up on their vegetarianism and ate the animal flesh.
A principle is not a principle unless it causes us pain to adhere to it. We cannot say that being honest is one of our principles if we refuse to be honest at times when circumstances penalise us for it. We cannot claim generosity as a core belief if we only give in times of prosperity and abundance. We cannot cling to kindness as a part of our OS if we’re only kind to those who are civil and thoughtful towards us. If these things were true principles, real beliefs, we would show kindness to cruelty, speak truth to power, and give to others what we cannot bear to be without.
If a belief or principle doesn’t require sacrifice or suffering to maintain it is nothing more than a mask we wear to feel better about ourselves, a facade we construct to persuade others we’re more than we really are.