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.