A Mighty Purpose

I recently re-discovered this passage from George Bernard Shaw, and found it every bit as compelling today as when I first encountered it a few years ago.

“This is the true joy in life – that being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.  That being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.  I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.  I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.  For the harder I work the more I live.  I rejoice in life for its own sake.  Life is no brief candle to me.  It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Each sentence in this stirring declaration can easily stand on its own as an opening theme for further reflection.  For example ….

This is the true joy in life – that being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.  We don’t use the word “mighty” very often in everyday speech anymore.  My dictionary defines it as “awesome in size, degree, or extent.”  In light of this description, consider what it could mean to live your life in service to “a mighty purpose”.  What mission in life could you define for yourself  that could be properly described as “awesome in size, degree, or extent?”  Certainly that mission could never be “complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy”, as Shaw puts it so pointedly in his next sentence.

… my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.  This assertion flies completely in the face of the prevailing sentiment in our consumer-based society – a sentiment perhaps more accurately expressed as “my life belongs to me, and it is my inherent right to get for myself whatever I can.”  Of course, few of us would readily admit to adhering to such a selfish standard, and in fact it’s quite easy to be blind to our own personal sense of entitlement, embedded as we are in an environment that promotes ease and comfort as such worthy aspirations.  Contrast the post-9/11 statement by George W. Bush, to the effect that the best thing for Americans to do in response to that cataclysmic event would be to “go shopping”, with the eloquent appeal John F. Kennedy made to his fellow citizens in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It is abundantly clear which of these two presidential exhortations calls on us to live for “a mighty purpose”, and which does not.

Life is … a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.  Viewing one’s life as a “splendid torch” evokes both the seemingly permanent grandeur of the sun and the stars above, and the actual transient brilliance of  the down-to-earth nature we are grounded in.  In caring for the torch while it’s in our possession, we reap all the benefits of its light and heat – and so do all those around us, with whom we are inextricably interconnected.  Recognizing that this torch is in our possession only “for the moment” brings us face-to-face with the fleeting nature of our own personal existence, as well as with the futile folly of our unceasing drive to accumulate ever more material comforts and social status.  Committing to “make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations” affords us a means of transcending our inevitably impermanent time on earth by giving something of value to those who will follow us.  Notice how this transcendence resides in the act of contributing, not in the act of consuming.  It arises from the sparks of generosity, not from the ashes of greed.

To conclude our consideration of Shaw’s description of the true joy in life, I would invite each of you reading this post to pursue the following mindfulness inquiry in the days and weeks ahead – Given the unique circumstances of my life at this precise moment in time, what would constitute the “mighty purpose” to which I could henceforth dedicate my particular talents and skills?”

I will be pursuing this same inquiry myself, and will report back in a future post on what thoughts, and perhaps what actions, arise for me as a result.

And to start us off on this inquiry, here are some inspiring words from James Flaherty, taken from his book Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others ….

My view is that our life is mostly about finding a way to contribute.  Many of us have been deterred from this path early on in our lives.  Additionally, many of us have concluded that it is not possible to contribute…   I have found this not to be the case.  

In fact … it is by continually asking [the question, “How can I contribute?”] that our identity … will continue to unfold.

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About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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6 Responses to A Mighty Purpose

  1. Thanks Tom! So I’ll think about what my mighty purpose might be. It’s probably going to be something about creativity and helping others to be creative in all kinds of ways… Colin

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    • I daresay your own magnificent blog is already fulfilling that mighty purpose, Colin!

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      • Hi Tom

        Hope so!

        This morning I’m thinking this might be my ‘mighty purpose’:-

        ‘There is one true vocation for everybody—to find the way to your self. You might end as poet, lunatic, prophet or criminal— that is not your affair [right now]… Your affair is to discover your own destiny, not something of your own choosing, and live it out wholly and resolutely: anything else is merely a half life, an attempt at evasion, an escape into the ideals of the masses, complacency and fear of your inner soul… I am an experiment on the part of Nature, a throw into the unknown…’ (Hermann Hesse: Demian)

        In focussing thus, I think I make space for others to pursue the same (?) way for themselves. That would be part of it. In attempting to find the way, all the things one makes help to lead onwards.

        Tomorrow morning I might think slightly differently!

        Colin

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  2. This excerpt from Hesse confronts me with a huge paradox, Colin. On the one hand, equating my “mighty purpose” with discovering my own “destiny” suggests that this whole matter has less to do with me and more to do with the mysterious workings of some impersonal external force; on the other hand, “living it out wholly and resolutely” brings that same mighty purpose back into the context of my own personal choice and commitment.

    Thinking further on what I’ve just written, I suppose my problem with the word “destiny” is its Calvinistic connotation of “pre-destination” – which surely is not what Hesse had in mind. I suppose the proper meaning to accord “destiny” in this instance is the historical context of the time and place in which one happens to be living one’s life. Appyling this interpretation of destiny, it’s clear that our “mighty purpose” must of necessity be tightly bound to the particular circumstances into which we find ourselves thrust into.

    This usefully illuminates my own ongoing inquiry into what might be my mighty purpose – so thanks for your contribution to my efforts!

    With regard to what you’ve written here about your purpose, I certainly see you as someone who makes space for others to find their own way. As noted above, you’ve just done that for me! But it interests me that you qualified your statement a bit, saying that making space for others is “part of it”. So what’s “the rest of it”? What remains to be articulated in the definition of your mighty purpose?

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    • Hi Tom

      Somehow or other your reply to my Hesse quote didn’t make its way into my email box. I’ve only just found it after posting the Hitchens’ reference!

      Yes, destiny’s a dozy kind of word which I wouldn’t normally use! Your clarification of a possible meaning works for me: ‘…“mighty purpose” must of necessity be tightly bound to the particular circumstances into which we find ourselves thrust into…’

      Perhaps ‘destiny’ is an open place, wide open, so that where you’re (one’s) going is an unknown till you get there; it’s not something we ‘choose’ in an intellectual sort of way – that would be to falsify the quest – but maybe something that chooses us. Existential choice and discovery. I won’t know what my ‘destiny’ is till I get there. I suppose that where I have got to in life so far is like that: I’ve never made deliberate choices about direction (of ‘career’ or meaningless things like that) – things have always seemed to have the habit of just turning up and eventually I just went with the flow.

      Taking other things into account in his writings I don’t think Hesse was into abandoning himself to ‘…the mysterious workings of some impersonal external force…’ and neither am I !

      What’s the rest of it? Hoho…

      You can’t make space for others until you know what it is to make considerable space for yourself!

      Thanks Tom! I suddenly have a sense of swimming amongst the stars!

      Colin

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      • Your comment, that you won’t know what your destiny is till you get there, brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s famous line…. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Not only does it bring it to mind, Colin, but in fact your comment illuminates this line for me quite a bit. Thanks!
        Tom

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