Facere Quod In Se Est*

It sounds like such good advice: “Just do the best you can.” It is the implications that are somewhat worrying.

Yes, it’s the beginning of the tournament year, and I’m back where I was in July, wondering what the point is. Okay, so one of the reasons that I lost that pool bout 4-5 was because my weapon failed on the last touch and my parry-riposte, clear as day to look at, did not register on the box. (My opponent remised, and there we were.) What was I doing letting things get to 4-4 in the first place? Well, I had been behind 1-4 and come back, but never mind. I lost the last touch because I did not know how to clean my tip properly, and that, plus one thing and another (both of my other weapons failing because the body cords were loose and so my attacks registered nothing but off-targets), I only won 3 of my 6 pool bouts, putting me in the middle of the field (16 out of 32) for the D-E round. And then I lost my D-E to the girl who had seeded 17th.

So there I was sitting at the end of the strip, trying not to cry, trying to think about what I had done wrong, and—horrible to think—not in fact being able to come up with anything. I actually fenced fairly well yesterday, but I still lost. Meanwhile, one of the women to whom I had lost in my pool (she’s only been fencing a year, although from what she said later, I think maybe she fenced before when she was younger) saw me and wanted to be encouraging. “Don’t give up hope,” she said. “You did your best; that’s all you can expect yourself to do.” Well, my best would have been learning sooner how to clean my tips and adjust the pins in my body cords; then maybe I would have won those two pool bouts and seeded 5-1 for the D-Es. I might even have been able to place in the top 8 and make my C.* If only I had cleaned my tip. If only my body cord had not slipped. If only….

Well, if only I had done my best. But then what? I don’t know where the phrase comes from in popular culture nowadays, but seven hundred years ago, it was a principal tenet of the philosophical and theological school known as Nominalism. Now, Nominalists like William Ockham (d. c. 1348) argued a number of crazy things, the most famous being, of course, that universals like “humanity” and “goodness” have no existence outside their instantiation in particular human beings or good things. But surely the craziest was this: human beings can, by doing all that is within their natural power unaided by grace (ex puris naturalibus), that is, by doing their very best (faciendo quod in se est), come to love God above everything else and thereby earn the infusion of first grace, thus coming one step closer to salvation.

Sound good? Augustine (d. 430) and Martin Luther (d. 1546) didn’t think so. Quite the reverse: thanks to the Fall, they would insist, we human beings are incapable of doing any good without God’s help; it is only through grace that we are able to cooperate in God’s will and, therefore, do our best. To suggest otherwise is both to presume upon God’s power and to call God a liar. God has promised us salvation not on the basis of anything that we can do—as if there were anything we could do to earn His love—but solely on the basis of faith. We are justified, as Luther would put it, following Paul, “by faith alone without the works of the law.” Neither is faith something (some thing) that we might earn. We cannot make ourselves faithful anymore than we can make ourselves love God.

Anymore, it seems, than I can make myself fence my best. Or, more to the point, than fencing my best can do anything to earn me a place in the top 8 or a ranking more consistent with my sense of how well I fence when up against fencers who have earned those ranks. Quite simply, there is nothing I can do.

As I am sure you can imagine, this feeling of impotence is near intolerable. Nothing I can do? Not practice harder? Not get better at fixing my weapons? Not learn how better to read my opponents? Not train more so that I have greater endurance***? Not work on creating a “trigger” as Josh Waitkzin recommends so that I can find my “zone” more consistently? No, nothing. I’ve read all the books. I’ve talked to myself on the strip. I’ve gotten myself to practice three times a week, even in the most punishing weather conditions. I’ve paid for extra lessons with my coach. I’ve gone to the tournaments. I am—I know I am—a much better fencer than I was even just this time last year. And yet, it makes absolutely no difference to my tournament results. Much as all the awards and fellowships I’ve received in my professional life make no difference to my academic rank.**** What should I do?

Well, as I realized this morning in church, nothing. Augustine and Luther were right: doing one’s very best is not enough (if even possible). Neither, however—and this is really the point, is it in fact necessary. Perhaps that’s not quite the right way to put it. “Doing one’s very best” implies the possibility of its opposite: not doing one’s very best. The whole premise is a trap. I have spent my whole life trying to do my best—and failing. As why shouldn’t I? I can always think of something else I should have done. Nothing I have ever done has been perfect; how could it be? But what else should “doing my very best” mean if not doing the best that I can imagine for myself? If I don’t do that, I clearly haven’t done my best. Not even close.

And herein lies the trap, not to mention the fallacy. “Why,” I was asking myself this morning, “is it so hard to change? Maybe it’s not even possible. Maybe, no matter how hard I try, I will always end up in tears when I lose. Maybe it’s stupid to believe that I can somehow adjust my character so that I don’t get so nervous at tournaments. Maybe I really just don’t have It, that spark that makes people winners even when they don’t have the skills that I do.” And so forth. Until another thought struck me. “Maybe I don’t actually need to change. Maybe this sense of always failing, never doing my best, is itself the problem. Maybe I’m just fine as I already am.”

Perhaps this is something of what Luther felt as he read Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of law.” Or maybe not. What I do know is that the thought was profoundly comforting. Maybe I’m not as hopeless as I feel. Maybe I don’t need to spend my life constantly trying to improve. Maybe that sense that I have of inadequacy—never doing my best—is unnecessary. Why? Because it implies that I should (note that should) be something other than I already am. And if I am constantly worrying about being something else, I am never actually myself. This is why I have been in so much pain.

Look at how much of my life I spend judging myself: I am too fat. I should eat better. I should spend Sundays doing something other than reading novels. I should practice harder. I should publish more. Why? So that, of course, I am doing my best. But what if I don’t do my best? What if I have that cookie—or four? What if I reread a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery instead of that book on religion and art? What if I only practice for a few hours a week? What if I don’t win that bout? Answer: nothing happens. The sky does not fall in. I am not damned. God doesn’t care whether I have done my best or not.

I know, I know, there’s that parable about the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Heaven forbid that I should squander my gifts. But that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s not about whether I am lazy or mean or selfish or unforgiving. It’s whether I am so busy trying to do or be something I’m not (my “best”) that I never get the chance to do what I can. “Pray as you can,” as Dom John Chapman (d. 1933) once said, “not as you cannot.” Charlotte Joko Beck has said something of the same thing (I don’t have her book with me at home, so this is from memory). Practice—by which she means sitting zazen--is not about anything. It’s not about getting better; it’s not about achieving enlightenment; it’s not about having a particular blissful experience; it’s not about change. It’s about itself: sitting. There is no “doing one’s best” in sitting; there is just sitting. Sitting is not, in other words, a work by which one might achieve grace. It is just something one does that is worth doing for itself.

Like reading a book or eating a cookie or fencing. “Fence as you can, not as you cannot.” As long as I have been imagining myself somehow fencing “my best”, I have been imagining myself fencing in a way which, quite simply, I cannot. I will never fence perfectly; I will never fence “my best”. But this does not mean I should not fence, nor does it mean that if I do not manage to fence my best I have failed. The fallacy is believing that somehow what I am doing already is not enough. The fallacy is believing that I need to change when I don’t. I just need to do what I am doing. That’s all.

Now if I can just keep this thought from becoming a law.

* Not a possibility from 16th place. Even if I had won that bout, I would then have had to fence the #1 seed, and I knew I couldn’t beat her. I’d fenced her before and she is much, much stronger than I am. I needed to seed higher to avoid the strongest fencers in the earlier D-E bouts. But even then I lost that first one. Sigh.**
**Okay, now I’ve just made myself feel worse by checking the final results on AskFred. One of the girls that I beat in the pools 5-1 earned her C yesterday. The other, to whom I lost 4-5 when my tip failed, earned her D.
***Something that is feeling less and less likely even in ordinary terms, now that the effects of being over-40 are really starting to kick in. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to feel so stiff in the morning even after twenty years of doing yoga more or less every day. Take notice: age will get you no matter what you do.
****And, yes, they’ve been considerable, although I know on this blog I may seem sometimes to forget it; I haven’t. I’m not that ungrateful.


  1. "Unveiling our true selves
    Each perfect as we are, yet striving towards perfection"

    From, an Invitation, by Bodhibadger

    It is like yoga--you can't force yourself past your current "edge". You can only take yourself up to that edge, and pause, breathe, and invite yourself to go further if you can. With compassion for yourself if the answer, for now, is "no!"

  2. I realize that this is quite an old post. I found it when doing a search for -facere quod in se est: "do what lies within you," "do your very best." I just came across that saying and found your blog post fascinating. I must admit that your interpretation of the quote, though most likely historically accurate, is not what the first thought that came to my mind when I read it. For me, I have come to learn to be satisfied with who I am, what I am capable of. I feel this is the gist of your piece. In that case, when I fail, I am doing my best. Can I do better tomorrow? Sure, but that was the best I was capable of today. Not the best of what someone else is capable of, but on that day that was the best you could do. Better next time? Maybe, but your best will never be perfection because we are at the core, imperfect. I prefer the first interpretation I found, "do what lies within in you". Be who you are, who God made you to be, with all your imperfections, striving to be more like Him, as he grows you into the person He wants you to be. Be the best you that you can be.


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