“The purpose of life is not to be happy,” insists Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
I have been a solid fan of Emerson – a brilliant and comprehensive American essayist and philosopher of the mid-19th century – ever since I was relieved of the duty to read him for school, but could instead navigate his pages at my own pace and for my own purpose. More recently, I have been honored with a gift from my mother of a 100-year-old volume of Emerson’s philosophical explorations and essays, where I found the sensible words I’ve quoted above.
“[T]o be useful … honorable … compassionate … make some difference …”
This expression is found in writings from the ancient to the contemporary, from Ovid to Pink Floyd. It is simple and with care it can grow into something to guide a life to profound value: Care for others, and you are caring for yourself – caring for others can bring you the health you seek.
Life has not been conventional or routine for any of my daughters; all three struggled in school – in particular, in high school – in ways that managed to roughly mimic the paths of my own rocky trek through my high school career.
High school was not easy for my eldest, nor were those years very kind to her. The many adjustments some adolescents manage over time did not settle out for her as they are meant to – all the moreso because several of the key people we called on to help her were of no particular help at all – or worse.
Still, she encountered people during those years who were kind to her – a few people who saw in this conflicted and gifted young woman what her parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles saw – and who were able to offer productive support, who offered models for resolution and growth.
My eldest daughter did not always follow their examples during high school, but once she had escaped that orbit, she grasped the value in their models and strove to emulate them. It did not take all that long before she was focused on pursuing a career doing for others exactly what the people in her life had tried to do – or failed to try to do – on her behalf.
Now, after years of struggle, after years of restoring her balance, she is licensed in her home state as a mental health counselor, and is already working as a supervisor of a team that provides support to adolescents struggling in life; and she will soon be adding therapy clients of her own to the mix. From any angle, it is an extraordinary resolution of the years when she largely rejected support, seeking instead just places of comfort and emotional safety.
One of Emerson’s contemporaries, Henry David Thoreau, offers his own words that illuminate my daughter’s experience.
“We should be blessed if we lived in the present always,” Thoreau writes, “and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities … We loiter in winter while it is already spring.”
My daughter is no longer loitering, but is deeply engaged in positive work, providing to those who struggle some compassionate and productive support and guidance so that they will someday be able to manage their own opportunities. She is their model.
Emerson’s words, Thoreau’s words, my daughter’s work and recovery – they all bring to mind a work by Walt Whitman, found in the 1891 edition of Leaves of Grass.
ME imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all or mistress of all, aplomb in the midst of irrational
Imbued as they, passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less
important than I thought,
Me toward the Mexican sea, or in the Mannahatta or the Tennessee,
or far north or inland,
A river man, or a man of the woods or of any farm-life of these
States or of the coast, or the lakes or Kanada,
Me wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for
To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as
the trees and animals do.