Building a Purpose

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw,

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the 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.”

Acting toward meaningful purposes is not easy and there is always a fear of the hard work, planning, and other people that will be part of the journey. Only by overcoming these initial fears and getting involved in the world can purpose and meaning be sparked in life.

The quote that Booker shares opens a conversation about a man named Frank Hutchins who was a longtime housing advocate and tenant organizer in New Jersey when Booker met him. In the story Booker explains that he dedicated himself to understanding people and helping them find true meaning in their life. Booker recalls his hero, and though he did not die as a hero surrounded by millions of people, he focused his life on something meaningful and impacted thousands of people though many likely never knew who he was.

By focusing on your wants and desires you miss the opportunity to do something meaningful to help improve the world for other people. You may find great success, live comfortably, and have lots of things, but wealth alone does not provide an answer for the purpose question. Only our actions and connection with the world can answer that question. I am not religious, but my wife is and I frequently go with her to community groups and church services, and even within Christianity purpose is built on the actions and connections we have with a world. Those actions and connections are guided by scripture 2,000 years old, but they are natural human tendencies that surely pre-date the idea of a monotheistic god. Developing relationships with others and working to make the world a better place, putting aside hedonistic tendencies and short term thinking was a focus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, and was so important that it became part of the Christian bible. It is so important yet often so paradoxical that Booker found the need to explore the idea in his life and book, and in our own lives we are still surprised by the idea.
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Emotional Wounds

One of the things I often think about at work is whether I am helping make the office a more enjoyable place for everyone to be. Am I helping to create an environment where people actually want to be, or am I in some ways contributing to an atmosphere that people dislike and don’t look forward to being at? These thoughts require that I take the focus off myself and instead shift it to those around me. It helps me look at my frustrations and move past them or see how they are opportunities for me to help others and make the day better for someone else.

Thinking in that manner is not easy, but I think it is something our society needs a little more of.  Whether we are in the office, on the freeway, at the gym, or in our neighborhood, we can think more of others and focus on how we can make a place better for others rather than selfishly thinking of ourselves.

A short passage from Cory Booker’s United helps me see why thinking of others and how I contribute to the world around me is so important. “For the eight years that I lived in Brick Towers, and during my almost twenty years as a Newark resident, my neighbors struggled with the emotional wounds of violence. This is not America; it is not who we are. It is a cancer on the soul of our nation. Like many cancers, the true peril comes from not detecting it, not recognizing the threat and the thus not taking the appropriate action.”

Our society often recognizes that everyone has problems that they are dealing with, but we never take time to think about the emotional wounds that many are going through. Booker refers specifically to emotional wounds brought on from violent experiences, but we all know people who have suffered intense emotional wounds without necessarily experiencing direct physicial violence. Putting thoughts of others and thinking of how you are helping the world be a nicer place for others helps us begin to heal the emotional wounds that Booker is discussing no matter where those wounds came from.

In regards to violence, we never spend much time thinking about how the victim will move on, continue life, and reintegrate with the world. We become singularly focused on how we wish to punish the violent offender but we don’t spend much time thinking about how we can minimize the emotional wounds that everyone involved will surely experience. I do not have a perfect answer for how we bind these emotional wounds, but I think that a crucial first step is to stop focusing on ourselves, what we want, and what is best for us in any given moment. We need to focus on other people, on how other people will react to our decisions and actions, and we need to focus on showing others that they are just as valuable as we are, and that we care about them. This does not mean we can never be self-centered and do things for ourselves, but rather that we will be more conscious of how our decisions impact other people, and we will find the appropriate time and place for ourselves.

Just as I think about the environment my decisions at work create, we should think about how our actions help to heal the emotional wounds that people in society face, or whether our attitudes further the strain those wounds.

Interwoven

Senator Cory Booker in his book, United, focuses on the connections that we as American’s all share, and how that should impact the way we think about the world. We must rely on each other and we must be responsible to each other if we are going to live in the same country and exist with a shared future. Booker was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey and wrote about the hope that he has always maintained for the city despite the displeasure that many people felt toward Newark.

“What others scorned, Newarkers defended. Where other saw fault, Newarkers described possibilities. Where others tore down, they sought to elevate. I was taken with this spirit. It spoke to ideas I had about America and our need to see one another for who we are, fellow citizens with interwoven destinies.”

Booker has a more positive outlook than most, and part of it is because he focuses on the possibilities he sees around him and the possibilities of the people he meets. So frequently when we look at where we live and who we interact with, rather than seeing potential and rather than helping elevate the positive aspects of others, we focus on the negative and try to find fault in others. Booker was mayor of Newark during the recession, and he would have had no shortage of things to complain about, but by doing so, he would have ignored the potential of the city and forgone dreams of better futures.

I think it is important that we try to think of other people as fellow citizens before we think of them as anything else. Creating a habit of seeing another person as a fellow citizen may help us overcome the snap judgements and implicit biases that we develop and often allow to operate just below the surface of our consciousness. By seeing what we share with others and how interwoven our lives are, we can see how much we depend on society and how much society depends on us. Focusing constantly on what is below the surface, how we are reacting to another, and on our shared citizenship helps us see that by connecting deeply, we can raise up ourselves and others.

It is easy to put ourselves first, but doing so risk the alienation of others. Thinking about how another feels and will react before we think of ourselves allows us to see that our actions can improve the lives of another person. Rather than being scornful of others, we should get closer to them in an attempt to improve their day in any small measure. Rather than finding fault with another and tearing them down for their mistakes, we should fold those reflections into our own lives to ensure that we avoid the same mistakes. We are all united, and it up to us to put the world on our back and carry forth positivity and a spirit of togetherness.

Lasting Imprints

“What we do or fail to do—to one another, for one another, or with one another—leaves a lasting imprint beyond what we can imagine.” Cory Booker includes this early on in his book United as he reflects on the lessons he learned from family and the connections he sees between all people. We often fall into a world where we think primarily of ourselves and we do not consider those around us. If we do consider those around us, we usually only think about those we are the closest to, our family and close friends, and we do not see how we are connected with those we have never met. Remembering that our lives are deeply connected with everyone, including those who came before us and those who will come after us, helps us remember just how important our actions are.

 

No matter what we do, our actions will always be infinitesimally small in the history and course of the entire world, but we always have an opportunity to improve someone’s day or to help establish a world that we would be proud to live in. Despite the limited impact of our actions on world affairs, the simplest gesture can still be important in the life of another person. What Booker is explaining in his quote, is that we can never predict how our actions will truly impact those around us and those who are connected to us, and we can never predict the value that our tiny action will have on the world. By believing that our tiny actions can be of value in the world and shape the planet in the direction we want, we can begin to approach the world in a more deliberate sense.

 

Booker’s quote is interesting because he directly refers to the impact of what we do not do. Do we fail to stand up for justice? Do we fail to acknowledge the value of another human being? Do we restrain ourselves from lashing out at others when we feel threatened? Thinking about what we do not do, not just the actions we perform, helps us value our decisions even more strongly. Recognizing the times when it is appropriate for us to show restraint and to honor another person builds self control in a respectful manner. Being aware of times when we want to move toward passiveness and inaction helps us confront fear and develop the courage to stand up and act during challenging times that require our effort.

 

Booker’s ideas align with Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way and a quote he shares from Leroy Percy, “A man’s job is to make the world a better place to life in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal…” We cannot predict what impact our actions will have, but we can make sure they are moving people in the right direction and helping us make a difference in the world.

 

What Booker and Holiday truly encourage is to consider our actions more deeply. To think beyond how out actions benefit us right now, and to ask ourselves, what impact do out actions have on the lives of those around us, on the lives of those beyond out community, and on the lives of future generations? When we build this sense of awareness into our actions we can begin to make the world a better place, and we can begin to also recognize the things that have helped us and allowed us to become the people we are today.

Trying to Change Others

Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .

 

This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.

 

Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”

 

When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.

Space in a Relationship

How much independence one has in a relationship is something that is rarely discussed openly and honestly within a relationship, but it is an important consideration for a healthy and successful partnership. The challenge in finding the right level of independence is that it is unlikely two people will have the same need for space and the same need for intimacy. Throughout his books, author Colin Wright provides us insight into his life, and he often refers to his need for time on his own. His reflections on his time alone give him a unique insight into the importance of space in relationships.

 

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, Wright creates a policy for approaching independence and writes, “Having space in a relationship means that you’re able to get time alone. It means being able to tuck away somewhere and read without being distracted by someone who is, lets be honest, quite distracting for many wonderful reasons.” There is a pressure, especially in romantic relationships, to always be near your partner, and finding time together in a world that moves fast and demands much of our time for work is quite important, but Wright thinks we should also discuss the time we need to ourselves. Failing to be honest about how much independence and time we need on our own is in some way hiding ourselves from the person we care about.

 

For Wright, it is important to find the right balance of time to ones self to be able to recharge and be content with who we are. It is hard to be a fully committed and connected individual in a relationship if one does not feel confidence and fulfillment in their own self. Allowing ourselves or our partner to have the space and time that they need will allow for that confidence and individual fulfillment that each person needs to bring to a relationship.

Footsteps

“In the series of things those which follow are always aptly fitted to those which have gone before; for this series is not like a mere enumeration of disjointed things, which has only a necessary sequence, but it is a rational connection: and as all existing things are arranged together harmoniously, so the things which come into existence exhibit no mere succession, but a certain wonderful relationship.”

 

Marcus Aurelius wrote this in his common place book which was published after his death as the work Meditations. In the passage above he is looking at the connections between the world, the people of the world, and the way that everything seems to be connected throughout time. His quote has elements of evolution, of generational succession, and interconnected decisions.  I think this quote is fantastic in our lives today because we become so busy and disconnected that we often fail to recognize how connected we are with everyone in the world, and how interconnected our destinies truly are. It can be easy for us to live in our own individual silos where we see the same people daily, we see the benefits of our hard work, and we enjoy (or become frustrated with) the same daily routines. Looking beyond our every day and taking a deeper look at the decisions we make compared with others can bring us back to our interconnectedness, and keeping Aurelius’ quote in mind reminds us that we are not as far or isolated from others as we may think and sometimes feel.

 

For me, the quote reminds me of the book I am currently reading, United by Cory Booker, and how the author is able to look at his life and decisions, and find ways in which decisions made long before his birth have impacted the life he currently lives. Booker writes,

 

“I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortable in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

 

What Booker references is how much his generation relies on the previous generations and how important the lives of those he never met have been for him and his generation. He is perfectly aligned with the ideas expressed by Marcus Aurelius who noted how closely tied generations are, even if they seem to be different and split in decisions and ideas.  Everything that precedes us shapes who we become by determining what opportunities we will have and by making decisions that shape what is possible for us.  When we forget how much we owe to those who sacrificed so that we could be here, we develop a false sense of entitlement and begin to think that we are far more awesome than we actually are. It is important to consider those who came before us and how we have benefitted from their actions and decisions so that we, just like Booker, can develop a sense of humility and respect for those who paved the ground that our lives stand upon.