When it comes to living a life of virtue and self-improvement, people often split into two camps. We have the warriors who view life as a battle against weakness and vice. And we have the artists who see life as a cultivation of their innate talents. The first group would sign up for a Spartan race. The other would enroll in a viola class. And people tend to hold onto their identity tighter and tighter throughout the journey of life.

The Way of the Warrior

A warrior maintains that the best path in life is the hardest path. Warriors adhere to self-denial over self-expression. Their mission is to resist temptation and root out inner darkness through strict regimens and simple living. By ascribing to an ascetic way of life and saying no to the little pleasures in life, they follow a road to purity. They face the challenges of the world armed, assured and battle-tested.

If you follow that approach, you begin to look at every decision through this lens. What else can I give up? What else can I surrender? The tendency of this way of thinking can begin to tilt towards an almost impossible task: Until I am completely unencumbered and free of all distractions, attachments, and desires, I cannot be good. There’s little time to focus on individual talents because there’s always another villain to be conquered.

The Wanderings of the Artist

There’s another way of thinking that seems almost antithetical to this approach. These folks see their natural inclinations as tools to be wielded, not evils to be avoided. The result? Life becomes a journey of exploration, not escape. Like swords being bent into ploughshares, their natural interests and desires are trained for good. By embracing their passions and saying yes to the open doors in life, they follow a road to possibility.

These are the maximalists, the larger-than-life creative types who are busy, cluttered, and spontaneous. Their idea of a life well-lived is one that ends up in a place wilder, more intense, and more unpredictable than they ever could have imagined. In their book, the more adventurous their day is, the better.

This mindset is similar to that of G. K. Chesterton — we have been created as eating, thinking, reading, writing, civil, active, social creatures with spouses and kids and in-laws and neighbors. Instead of spending time manipulating myself to be something that I’m not, I follow the path that feels more like me and follow my strengths. I’ll fail fast and fail forward.

Forging a Complete Character

Of course, neither solution is in and of itself the answer. They are two opposites sides of a spectrum. We’re not meant to choose one or the other, but to choose both. To reconcile both is to live a life of passionate temperance.

The discipline of the warrior feeds the creativity of the artist. We all have to learn how to overcome distraction and temptation and commit to a mission and stick to it. It’s a way for us to become who we are meant to be. And pursuing your talents is no walk in the park. It takes constant courage. It is full of tension. Full of growth. Full of shedding your old skin.

Preparing for a Heavenly Feast

Just take the classic film Babette’s Feast as the perfect example. A French cook on the run is welcomed into the home of a pair of austere Christian sisters. They have stripped their lives down to serve their community, but have left no room for romance, opera, good food, or adventures of any kind. Babette dutifully serves them their mundane, lifeless meals, year after year.

But in the grand finale of the film, Babette uses an unexpected windfall of money to treat the sisters to an incredible French dinner party. Every dish, every ingredient, every candle, is lavished upon with her professional care and finesse. To give back to the family who welcomed her in her time of need, she opens their eyes to the beauty of what creative skill can produce and the delicacy of Earth’s bounty.

The sisters’ stable, safe environment was the shelter that Babette needed in the storm of life. And Babette’s lesson to the hardworking sisters is that if you see abundance properly, it can bring you closer to God. Both parties are made complete and spiritually alive through this meal.

An Integrated Journey

The heroic journey is a twin journey of purgation and potential. Higher than self-discipline and self-expression is self-mastery — knowing and being yourself. Being master of the personality that God gave you and the situation you’re in. Mastering your talents so that you can lead and mentor others. To form desire, you need to direct desire, not just limit desire.

To truly improve ourselves, we have to learn how to strengthen the will and harness the power of our passions to lead to good.

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