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.
Have you ever had a disagreement with someone only to find out that you both agree on the same concept or principle, but you just don’t agree on semantics and vocabulary definitions? Author Colin Wright looked at this phenomenon within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. Wright has three rules regarding communication in relationships and his first rule is to keep in mind how other people use vocabulary different.
My college undergraduate major was Spanish, and I took linguistic classes in English and Spanish, so I am always drawn to conversations and discussions surrounding the use of language to express complex ideas with random sounds organized together. I love the different uses of language across a nation or across multiple nations, so Wright’s first rule of relationship communication is a natural fit for me. In describing his rule he writes, “The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like “relationship” and “love” and even “communication” will mean something slightly, or vastly different to each individual who uses them.”
It is not often that we discuss how language is used with the people in our lives, and in daily conversation we certainly don’t often dive into questions regarding the different meanings we all have with the same set of words. Wright’s description of vocabulary means that we are living in an unavoidable world of telephone, where the words can be the same, but what has been said is different from person to person.
Being honest and open in relationships requires strong communication practices that can be inhibited when we are not discussing the same idea with the same concepts arising from the same meaning in the vocabulary we use. It is worth being more aware of one’s own vocabulary to better recognize situations where communication is taking place, but miscommunication is obstructing the meaning of what is being said.
In his book Considerations author Colin Wright focuses on growth and success and writes, “maybe focusing on growth — or the measurement of it — is missing the point of living well.” This quote speaks to me about the importance of not focusing on others and worrying about how we compare to others. When we spend time worrying about others, what they achieve, what they drive, and how fancy their job title is, we either feel inadequate or we overinflated our ego. What Wright is arguing is that all of these comparisons between us and our neighbors, co-workers, peers, and the other people in the grocery line distract us from focusing on what is truly important in life. At a more profound level, Wright’s quote also speaks about the importance of self awareness, and what we should use self awareness for. Rather than analyzing ourselves and critically analyzing our level of growth, his quote seems to show that we would be better suited by finding ways to enjoy life and lead a positive life rather than living with a focus on constant growth. In this way it is as though the best way to growth is through an oblique path as opposed to a direct tangent.
Wright’s idea feels quite stoic to me and reminds me of Marcus Aurelius in many ways. I am currently working through Meditations and 2,000 years ago Aurelius was encouraging us to focus inwards on ourselves and not be tempted by desire for the things that others have which we do not. When we are not worried about obtaining the same things that our neighbors have and when we do not spend all our time trying to impress others, we can connect with ourselves in a meaningful way, and move in a direction which fuels us for more positive reasons.
I think that both Wright and Aurelius would admit that there is a difficult balance to be maintained when it comes to self awareness and growth. In previous posts I have written that establishing goals based around growth is a more effective way to guide ones life, but at the same time, focusing on growth as opposed to focusing on living a well rounded and meaningful life still will not guide an individual in the best possible direction. We are still measuring ourselves and making comparisons between our current self and past self along with others. Focusing on these changes and gaging whether or not they are the changes we want or expect of ourselves does not provide the meaning to our life that we should desire.