“It was not the matter of the work, but the mind that went into it, that counted – and the man who was not content to do small things well would leave great things undone.” – Ellen Glasgow, The Voice of the People.
Last time I ended on the daunting if optimistic note that the final touch on a meaningful life may be completion of one or more objectives within the larger world of sufficient magnitude to meet one’s own standard of significance for self-validation. Alternatively we might say that eudaimonia entails self-actualization within the human community. Such a profound pronouncement begs for additional clarification, which is the subject of today’s essay. What types of roles or accomplishments make up the universe of possibilities? For this blog, the answer must be general, so do not expect specificity in what follows.
As we think through the potential roles that fulfil authentic purpose they fall into groups we can roughly rank in terms of increasing significance but typically decreasing tangibility:
- Occupations – those who contribute to current community necessities or security, or which are adjuvant to higher roles. Examples include farmers, grocers, bakers, factory and construction workers, attorneys, business people, law enforcement officials, military personnel, etc. The results of their labor are measurable hence more tangible; for instance, the automobile line worker can see the cars rolling off the assembly line and know he or she was partly responsible for them.
- Callings – a profession to which one feels summoned in order to help others. This often applies to teachers, social workers, mental health counsellors, medical providers, and the clergy for example. There is some feedback of appreciation or even visible benefit to others, but services of this type do not aim towards a concrete final product.
- Entertainers- such as actors, performers, and professional athletes. As Santayana saw, one powerful purpose of civilization is varying experience. Contributing to the pleasure of one’s fellow humans is a worthy goal for any lifetime.
- Missionaries – those who devote their lives to helping the unfortunate or downtrodden. Ultimate results may or may not be definitive, but the missionary is likely to experience gratitude and perhaps some lasting effect on the life of others.
- Influencers – those who choose a career which informs and/or guides societal understanding. I would include journalists, media consultants, cultural critics, and political or scientific writers in this group. For the most part their work is timely rather than enduring, but vital to an informed population and the optimal functions of society.
- Politicians – a self-evident term. Good governance and the creation and execution of ethical law are intangible goods, but clearly vital at the levels of local, state, national, and international communities.
- Practical scientists – mainly researchers and inventors. The former typically produce incremental rather than revolutionary knowledge, but can anticipate some tangible outcomes. The fortunate inventor can expect a tangible product with potentially enduring impact on humanity.
- Creators – writers and artists. The pleasure, inspiration, and insight they offer to existing and future people is perhaps less tangible than in other fields, but the prospect of enduring impact makes for perhaps the highest goal possible for any person. Consider the longevity of the works of Aristotle, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or Beethoven.
(continued next post)