Self-Improvement Inspiration From Some Early Modern Greats

Gonzaga University’s alumni magazine recently introduced me to the “Ignatian Year,” a commemoration that began May 2021 and is now wrapping up. May 20 last year marked the 500th anniversary of St. Ignatius’ conversion. I’m not Catholic, so I wasn’t aware of details about this figure, such as the fact that on that fateful day, Ignatius the soldier was struck by a cannonball, and his recovery began his transformation into Ignatius the pilgrim. This 500th anniversary also coincides with the 400th anniversary of his eventual canonization as St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Francis Xavier also getting the saint upgrade.

I am compelled and embarrassed to mention that when I read the reference to “the cannonball incident,” I immediately thought it must have been an accident. Like a Jackass dare gone awry at the monastery. It took a few Google clicks to learn that he was then a soldier, and to remember that cannonballs were once used in actual warfare—Ah yes, their pre-circus role.

Anyway, the Jesuit Catholics used the Ignatian Year for reflection, and particularly did so because of the COVID epidemic. The idea is to pursue transformation, pilgrimage even, when confronted by life’s epic interruptions. What an awesome vehicle for self-improvement, to commemorate a major historical figure and to use this emphasis to prioritize a path of growth.

So, I thought I’d propose some milestone markers for selected years to come. I’m on it now because it might take a while to get these approved for official observance. Ignatius’ life straddled the Medieval and Early Modern eras, so I picked up where he left off and sought inspiration from some of the greats that followed. Here are my commemorative year pitches, along with some ideas about how they might similarly inspire us:

2023, The Bachian Year
300th year of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1723 Leipzig, Germany employment

Okay, this one is coming around the corner, so get pumped. Keyboardist and composer J.S. Bach is well-known for his prolific work. For example, one of his collections is The Well-Tempered Clavier, a two “book” collection of 24 paired preludes and fugues, in all 24 major and minor keys. Quite the double-album set! The second volume was dropped two decades after the first, so it’s a good thing he kept his following. “Clavier” referred to any keyboard instrument but included the harpsichord and clavichord, both which use keys like a piano but pluck at strings like a guitar, the former aggressively so, the latter more gently. I trust that he read the room because in a grand hall nobody would even hear a clavichord, and in a small marble-clad sitting room a harpsichord would sound like a maniacal chorus of banjos. Inspired by WTC Vols I & II, if you had a garage band in the 80s, you might use the Bachian Year as motivation to bust out that special hybrid instrument and who knows, you might drop The Mean-Tempered Keytar before 2023 is through! I would recommend releasing an EP though—attention spans these days, you know.

J.S. achieved his success largely to mathematically precise formulaic adaptation and repetition, on both theme and rhythm, borrowing from other music of his time. And he borrowed from himself as well, later reworking and extending many of his own compositions. Given his obsession, I’d love to see what the new J.S. would have done with a loop pedal, some beats, and a few Hall & Oates intros. I think J.S. – The Leipzig Remixes, Vols. I-VII would’ve been transformative.

So, even if lacking a keytar for my first suggestion, you could just hole up in your recording studio (iPad, Pro Tools 12, and mic), embrace copyright-infringement, and flood the iTunes store with a crapload of content. And if you are not so musically inclined, you could still use the Bachian year to rebrand your name using the J.S. format (first and middle initials), including your last name only on an as-needed basis. “Yo A.J.!” “What up, C.K.?” [Replace previous interaction with you and your colleague’s initials.]

2061, The Louisian Year
400th year after Louis XIV began to rule France

You have a head start on this if you’ve watched the Versailles series. In addition to holding the longest rule of any king ever, Louis XIV (a.k.a. “The Great”) constructed the Canal du Midi, the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, and thoroughly dominated his court and constituents. He generously left his successor with a powerful kingdom and, thanks to the 13-year-long War of Spanish Succession, a few maxed-out HELOCs, a half-dozen limited-out credit cards, and a slew of frequent rider miles.

The Louisian Year could be particularly inspirational for the timid, morally conservative, and frugal among us. With good credit, you could submit simultaneous applications with Capital One, AmEx, and Chase and commence to running up card charges, building something grand, sowing some wild oats, and possibly getting involved in hostile takeovers rather than wasting time with wimpy negotiations. Embrace the YOLO mindset and displace a dozen or so of those pansies dwelling in trendy Tiny Homes. Legacy starts with an “L”.

2066, The Cookian Year
300th year of Captain James Cook’s first voyage commission

Captain Cook was an explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the British Royal Navy, famous for his three voyages between 1768 and 1779, to New Zealand and Australia in particular. Cook’s voyage gigs ended when he was attacked and killed while attempting to kidnap the ruling chief of the main island of Hawaii. The kidnapping effort was part of a strategy to reclaim a cutter taken from one of his ships after his crew took wood from a burial ground. That ended poorly for him, along with any plans of Trip #4 and his campaign of aggressive colonialism.

So, what’s the takeaway? Think positively: employ the Cookian Year to inspire the lost art of exploration, to go visit places new to you, or better yet, completely uncharted places (not Idaho, please; it has been recently mapped and potatoes are boring). No, I do not recommend following Cook’s lead in displacing indigenous peoples, but perhaps it’s an excuse to visit the Main Island and reflect on how he was finished off! Or if explorations and Hawaii trips are over budget, one could get into the anti-Cook spirit and at least acknowledge the presence and value of 2.7 million Native Americans.

2055, The Sacagawean Year
250th year of the Lewis & Clark expedition naming the Sacagawea River

Speaking of Native Americans, exploration, and Idaho, let’s put the Sacagawean Year on our calendars also. Sacagawea was lead support staff on the Lewis and Clark Expedition (dual role as Director of Guiding and Interpretation, I believe), learning the lay of the land from her moment of birth in Idaho near the Continental Divide. Lewis recorded the birth of her son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau on February 11, 1805, noting that another of the party’s interpreters administered crushed rattlesnake rattles in water to speed the delivery. Clark and other European-Americans nicknamed the boy “Little Pomp” or “Pompy.” On May 14, 1805, Sacagawea rescued items that had fallen out of a capsized boat, including the journals and records of Lewis and Clark. The corps commanders, who praised her quick action, named the Sacagawea River in her honor. If she hadn’t married a French trapper or had lightning-like reflexes, I fear she might have been just another unmentioned employee of L&C LLC.

To take advantage of the Sacagawean Year, I’d suggest taking on a significant support role in service of others (you don’t have to be the headliner). Perhaps become a sightseeing guide for your tourist-overridden state, start posting Google reviews, or instead of fighting for that promotion, take the demotion and get back in the trenches—give some valuable intel to the newbies out of college.

One might take inspiration from Sacagawea’s delivery of Jean Baptiste, a.k.a. Pompy, and delve into more of that cost-cutting herbal medicine. If you killed some rattlesnakes, I’d be particularly supportive. Oh, and if you are having a kid in Sacagawean Year, remember to promptly initiate a catchy nickname such as Lumpy, Grumpy, or Spendy. And for yourself, re-brand and start building your one-name legacy as did Sacagawea, Cher, Prince, Liberace…even Hercules. (The two-initial thing might be worn out by this time.)

2087, The Newtonian Year
400th year of Isaac Newton’s publication of Principia

The phenom Newton defined classical mechanics (laws of motion and gravitation), modeled optics, and built the first reflecting telescope, now the “Newtonian telescope.” Many other famous historical scientists got a huge leg up by building on his work. The legacies of Kepler and Einstein, for example, would have looked much different without him. Although a devout Christian theist in far greater degree than most recognized scientific leaders today, he was also devoutly unorthodox, for example, bucking the concept of the Trinity.

To self-improve in 2087’s Newtonian Year (I don’t expect to be around then, so this commemorative milestone is for you “kids” under 35 or so), experience the Law of Universal Gravitation via skydiving or revisit the fun of an amusement park ride to appreciate acceleration (if they are not all virtual by then). If you’re too chicken for that, visit an observatory and be inspired firsthand by the vastness of space and the wonder of stars, planets, and galaxies. If you are a spiritual person, take a cue from Isaac and try pushing back against a major tenet of your church or movement; shake things up a bit. It’s 2022 so without that dialogue, they might not know such a thing exists. “We believe in what?”


So, perhaps you missed the recent National Crouton Day celebration. Are you looking forward to National Ballpoint Pen Day? Me neither. Let’s skip the uninspiring single-day celebrations of foods, objects, and the whims of contemporary culture, and invest some commemorative sweat into weightier matters. I’ve pitched these five; it’s a start. Perhaps some of my readers might continue the effort or at least take care of the merch.

Copyright © 2022 Richard Berndt – All Rights Reserved.

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