What does it mean to spend one's life in a worthy cause?
Theodore Roosevelt uses this phrase in his famous speech to the Sorbonne, and it is a pointed question that provides the appropriate context to continue our analysis of the excerpt from An Honest Man's Fortune quoted by Emerson in his preface to "Self Reliance." [Don't forget to read Part 1 and Part 2]
Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
To know what this statement means, you must first ask yourself, "what does it mean to spend one's life?" Not many of us often pause to examine the language we use day to day to describe our experience. You use the phrase "spend time," but do you fully embrace the word "spend"? Most people do not keep a detailed accounting ledger of their time, and yet perhaps we should consider it, for time is the most curious of all of our resources.
It is the resource you cannot get any more of. Neither can you know how much remains in your account--you have been permanently locked out of the online time banking interface. But these are not the most peculiar attributes of time as a resource. What is most unusual about time is that you are forced to spend it one way or another.
When you say something "saved time," you don't mean that you accumulated more in your account, but merely that you are free to reallocate it to something else, including often to nothing at all.
Imagine you have $100,000 given to you upon entering a mall. But there's a catch. Every second, $5 is debited from your account, no matter what. You can either use it on purchases, or else it flits away. The other catch is that you can't resell anything that you buy.
What would you do?
I know what I would do--I would think carefully, but quickly, about what I would value having the most and I would methodically go acquire those things, not worrying about what else I was losing in the process. I would acknowledge that I couldn't have everything, and that any minute I spent procuring anything less than my top priority was an enemy.
I would quickly realize that my worst enemy was paralysis by analysis. That worrying about regretting my choice would cost me dearly--maybe it would even cost me everything. The regret of getting nothing, because I feared regretting my choice, would be the most stinging regret of all.
Yet here our generation stands in the mall of our lives, with more options than any one in hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, and we are wasting our time by window shopping because we are terrified of buyer's remorse. We want to try things on, but not commit to buying them. We have even allowed ourselves to be manipulated by sociopathic marketers into thinking that we don't want to buy anything, that deep down we want Everything as a Service.
We've settled for Work-as-a-Service, Relationships-as-a-Service, Sex-as-a-Service (Tinder is just the BlaBla Car of sex), and one day we will wake up at the age of 45 and realize that our account is more than half empty because only then will we realize we didn't read the fine print. Our account was actually draining non-linearly, and we have even less remaining than we thought we would have.
There, in painful detail, is the accounting of how much we spent in the dressing room. How angry will you be on that day? Angry at yourself, angry at all of the people who lied to you, saying "you're young, you've got plenty of time!"
Your forehead will bear the wrinkles of time either way. What do you want those wrinkles to mean? What do you want them to have purchased?
Deep relationships or friendships of convenience? Genuine intimacy or an extensive and "heroic" Tinder history? Fulfilling work that made a difference to other people's lives or Instagram pictures of otherwise forgettable vacations and a dozen discarded iPhones purchased with the fruits of years of dubious labour upholding a system completely at odds with your values?
Maybe you're already there at 45, and the accounting of life has caught up with you, and you are now faced with the prospect of imagining your state of mind at 75, with the same regrets, only at a far greater magnitude, but with no time left to recuperate your lost position and merely a few years of diminishing efficacy to come to peace with all of the lost time, gone forever.
The only way to avoid this fate is to reject the lies of the deceived and deceiving people of our time. The lie that there will be time for all the things you want to do. Time to create the things you want to create. Time for all of the works that now fill your imagination. Time to build the relationships of incalculable value.
The lie that there is no longer good or evil, but merely competing options of variable utility. The lie that discerning and making value judgments deprives you of interesting possibilities. The lie that goads you to abandon your post as an agent of the Good and divorce yourself from responsibility for the impact of your choices on other people.
You might be able to convince yourself intellectually of their argument, but your heart will know better. And in those quiet hours alone with yourself, Reason will expose himself as a traitor and your own conscience will be left alone to pay the highest psychological price.
Fortunately the alternative is right in front of you. Your calling in life--that direction where your Star is pointing--is made manifest to you when you stop trying to live a life pleasing others, whether friends or family or social media audiences or advertisers. Embrace yourself for who you are and what you can do, and then the anxiety about regret will vanish, and then you can come into your own.
Maybe it will not be a flashy life. Maybe you will make no headlines. Maybe not a single other person will even acknowledge your contribution. But you will know your own worth. The impact of your life will be clear to you day by day and in the final judgment--because only you know what your life is worth. Only you can know how it must be spent, what is that worthy cause that merits those wrinkles on your forehead.
And you are free to walk, not run toward it, because you know that all the rest is superfluous. You will know that in electing your work you have made yourself known to the world, but most importantly to yourself. Abiding in a life true to your own Star automatically optimizes the accounting of your time. In such a state of mind, you can rest peacefully in the knowledge that much better than the path of least resistance, you are on the path of least regret, and that nothing will fall too early or too late.