Saturday, January 15, 2011
Living an intentional life
Does living your life intentionally make it meaningful? What is "intention"?
In 2005, gave a talk about living an intentional life to the Columbia Undergraduate Scholars Program (I serve on its Board of Advisors). I thought I'd post it here.
Address to College Scholars dinner, September 26, 2005
By Mary Kelly Persyn
I’m a law student, but before returning to school, I taught poetry for a living. Often when I speak to an audience, I think of what poems would be appropriate to the occasion, because to me there’s something about the richness of poetic language that sets the stage for a message better than anything else.
For you, I wanted to talk about the power of choices and the meaning of living an intentional life. And so for you, I chose a poem by Adrienne Rich, one of America’s foremost poets, who has been writing and participating in political activism for a very long time. This one is called “Inscriptions,” and you can find it in her book Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991-1995.
Old backswitching road bent toward the ocean's light
Talking of angles of vision movements a black or a red tulip
Times of walking across a street thinking
not I have joined the movement but I am stepping in this deep current
Part of my life washing behind me terror I couldn't swim with
part of my life waiting for me a part I had no words for
I need to live each day through have them and know them all
though I can see from here where I'll be standing at the end.
When does a life bend toward freedom? grasp its direction?
How do you know you're not circling in pale dreams, nostalgia,
but entering that deep current malachite, colorado
requiring all your strength wherever found
your patience and your labour
desire pitted against desire's inversion
all your mind's fortitude?
Maybe through a teacher: someone with facts with numbers with poetry
who wrote on the board: IN EVERY GENERATION ACTION FREES OUR DREAMS
When does a life bend toward freedom? How do you know you are on the right path? Of course, the answer is: it bends toward freedom when you start understanding what the meaning of life is for you. To the extent that you consider your options carefully within the context of your own values, you are living an intentional life—one that will lead you to understand its meaning more and more as you move through it.
Wise individuals have tried to define the meaning of life since humans first stood upright. Monty Python lovers in the audience probably thought immediately of the film The Meaning of Life, which mercilessly parodies the very thought that life might have coherent meaning. And it’s very easy to give up on the idea and retreat into more immediate concerns, especially if you’re lucky enough to live in New York City and go to Columbia University. The meaning of life can seem almost banal in the midst of that creative explosion.
And, of course, the meaning of life is completely personal. No one can formulate it for you, though consulting great spiritual and religious thinkers and philosophers can help. Ultimately, though, you make the meaning of your life by living intentionally.
What does it mean to live intentionally? I can only tell you what it’s meant for me. I’ve found that three principles have helped me learn how to construct the meaning of my own life: failure; the fascination of difficulty; and attachment to a principle larger than myself.
First, failure. Yes, failure. Failure is so painful that many people do everything they can to avoid having to confront it. Highly capable and talented people can easily find ways to not fail. Given your talent, abilities, and privileges, that includes all of you in this room. From this day forward, you can find ways to avoid risking failure if you really want to. I counsel you instead to seek out failure. Actively give yourself opportunities to fail, as frightening as that is. Scare yourself a little. Try to do what you aren’t yet able to accomplish. Take risks. And don’t let fear of failure control your life.
Why? Because while success validates what you have done and keeps you going on the same track, failure brings you up short. Confronting and taking responsibility for your own failure makes you powerful. You might have failed because you’re just not good enough yet, or strong enough yet, or knowledgeable enough yet. It could be that you are the wrong person trying to solve a particular problem. Understanding what you need to do to improve, or understanding that you need to step aside and let someone else manage the problem for a while, is tremendously empowering because it pushes you further in your own development than you were previously able to envision.
For example, I failed as an academic—not because I failed to get a job; I did end up with a tenure-track position after an extended sojourn on the academic job market. No, I failed because once I got the job, I couldn’t do it as well as I knew I should. Why? Because I hadn’t done my homework. I didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that I really was not cut out to be an academic. And it’s not because I didn’t have the intellectual firepower to do the work. It’s because my personality wasn’t right for it, and my skill sets are not ideally suited for it.
The costs of acknowledging such failure were enormous. I had to move back across the country from Virginia to California and find another job (I taught high school for two years). I had to endure the disappointment and pain of having trained for and participated in a very demanding profession for ten years, only to seemingly lose everything I had fought for. I had to start all over again, with all the uncertainty and worry that choosing yet another career path brought with it. It took me four years to decide finally that I would return to school and train to be a lawyer. I had to let down my advisors and mentors, who had sunk so much time and effort into developing my career. I faced a significant amount of debt without knowing how I’d pay it.
I could have taken the easy way out by staying at my private high school job. It paid well and I was near my family. But a voice inside me wouldn’t let me do that. That would have been the larger failure. It’s always a good move to fail because you tried to do too much, but the failure of trying to do too little can destroy you.
I don’t know anyone who has accomplished great things who has not failed at some point, sometimes spectacularly. And a word to the women: men have always known this and have been undeterred by failures, especially in management and public service. Look into the careers of the great majority of elected officials and representatives, and you’ll find out they’ve lost at least one election in their lives—usually the first. Studies show that men learn from that failure and keep going, often winning on the second or third try. They never seem to pause and wonder whether they are cut out for the job; they simply try to figure out what they should do next to improve. Women are far more likely to quit after a loss, perhaps because they feel they’re not cut out for the job. I hope that your generation of women sees failure differently. I believe that, given the continually growing prevalence of women’s sports, the popularity of failure among women will continue to grow. In sports, after all, failure—losing—is the primary tool for improvement.
So fail. If you want to have an interesting life, failure is inevitable anyway. And this isn’t some Pollyanna story—failure hurts, and it doesn’t always teach you something. But most of the time it does. Take the risk.
Second, the fascination of what’s difficult. It won’t surprise you to hear that this is a quote from a poem by William B. Yeats. The speaker of Yeats’ poem complains about such fascination, accusing it of having distracted him from the bones and structure of the problems he has confronted. The fascination of what’s difficult, he states, has “dried the sap out of my veins, and rent / Spontaneous joy and natural content / Out of my heart.” But as the reader of the poem trying to understand the larger situation of the speaker, you see that such complaints come from the frustration of entanglement. Ultimately, the speaker returns to the simple, but can only do so because she has confronted difficulty. The greatest ideas and creations and inventions are beautifully simple, but arrived at only by untangling the skein of marvelous difficulty through which inspiration will inevitably lead you.
Look for difficult problems to solve, because they are the ones worthy of your time and effort. You will be infuriated by them, often stumped by them, and you may fail multiple times as you try to untangle them. But there is no way that the great problems of our time will be solved by anyone who has never worked with difficulty. In a sense, seeking out the difficult is another way of thinking big. And one more thing: if you stick to the difficult, you may by turns be confused, discouraged, infuriated, or dumbfounded—but you will never, ever be bored.
Listen again to Adrienne Rich: you know that your life bends toward freedom when you enter “that deep current malachite, colorado / requiring all your strength wherever found / your patience and your labor / desire pitted against desire’s inversion / all your mind’s fortitude”. How do you know? Look for a difficulty requiring all your strength.
Third, a cause, principle, or value larger than myself. This is not wholly or perhaps even primarily an idealistic point, though it does encourage altruism. Living for yourself alone is essentially empty, and that way lies despair. Living for those immediately connected to you can be completely satisfying for some, but it never has been for me. Of course my family and friends are fundamentally important to me, and I hold them close. But they cannot form the entire substance of my life. Rather, there are causes and principles to which I hold that better explain the logic of my life beyond the immediate reference point of those closest to me.
Social justice, the principle beyond myself that drives my life, is a cause that millions of people have pursued through time, and, if the human race survives far into the future, millions more will pursue it when I am dead. The call to justice is a call motivated by a belief in perfectibility, and we all know that perfect justice is an impossibility. Still we must strive for it, so that’s what I do. That goal pulls me along through very tough times when it would be so much easier to just go home and relax. I find I can’t—I have to keep going, and it isn’t because I’m indispensable. I’m not even a blip on the radar screen. I contribute what I can because this is what I can do. In the face of the blank annihilation of a meaningless life, this goal gives my life content because, however little I contribute, I participate in a much larger project that makes progress because I work alongside thousands of others. And that, I think, is the key not to the meaning of life, but to a meaningful life.
And there’s a great thing about service to a goal bigger than you. It does not matter what you choose to do with your life: you can still serve justice, or whatever other goal seems paramount to you. The old saying holds an especially poignant truth in this post-9/11 age: everyone can be great because everyone can serve. Each one of you can find a way.
The greatest spiritual and devotional writing is also poetry. The Talmud, the ancient book of Jewish wisdom made up of interpretations of the Torah, gives me the prose poem that closes my remarks.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Now I’m going to stop, but while you’re eating and talking with your table mates, I want you to think about some things, because after dinner I’m going to ask you to talk about them briefly to the group. I’ve shared with you three things that contribute to the constantly evolving meaning of my life: failure, difficulty, and a focus outside myself. What are the factors that give meaning to your life? Here’s a hint: if you answer the question with a statement that sounds like a Hallmark card, you aren’t there yet (and believe, me I have had my own Hallmark-card struggles to define life meaningfully).
You might even think about experiences you’ve had that conclusively demonstrated to you that some aspect of existence is not meaningful to you. Or maybe you’ve found that one of the factors I’ve identified is also significant to you. Whatever your thoughts, please take some notes. We'll talk again in a little while.