In 1930, Will Durant wrote a book called (somewhat heavy-handidly) On the Meaning of Life. In it, Durant starts with an ‘anthology of doubt’ that contains a scathing and provocative take on the current age as a decadent, God-less maelstrom devoid of purpose and full of mindless drudgery. He summarizes this in the form of a letter to several ‘famous contemporaries’ (e.g., George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi) and asks them to respond with some notion of what keeps them going in light of this, and where their ‘treasure lies’. The entire book is fantastic, but this response in particular resonated with me. It is written by John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian minister and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Dear Mr. Durant,
What keeps me going? – Something within me that burns like a consuming flame when I see falsehood, hypocrisy, injustice, and evil-doing; something without me that pulls like the attraction of love when I catch a glimpse of what this world might be, and may yet be if we try hard enough.
There was a time when I expected to accomplish something before I died – to see this world changed somewhat because of what I said or did. I cherish this individual expectation as little now as I do the cosmic expectation that this planet will endure beyond a few more million years. No, my eyes will close some day upon the same world upon which they first opened, just as in due time the world itself will end as it began. But meanwhile the universal creative Life has been moving on like a river to some far end unseen, undreamed of, and my life – not a bit of debris but a constituent drop in the great flood – has been bending its impulse to the onward sweep of mystic destiny.
I think it is the sense of my creative capacity, matching however microscopically the creative capacity at the heart of the universe, that gives me strength to live – and great good cheer in the business, too! I try to think when I have felt most happy because most alive. Surely, in the experience of love; surely, also, in hours of crisis, when I have cast all on some great hazard; again, in some swift moment when a “concourse of sweet sounds” in symphony or opera has caught my soul and taught me to relive the emotion of the composer in his original conception; again, when I have myself conceived, in a sudden instant, some vision of the spirit and seen it clothe itself in words upon my startled lips; still again, when I have thrown myself into some cause of justice and the right, and fought to victory or defeat; most of all, perhaps, when I have prayed, or tried to pray, and heard faintly within myself some answer. These are all experiences of creation – of action that brings order out of chaos and beauty out of order, and thus, within its compass, “makes all things new.”
It is in such instants that I have felt life in its raw state, so to speak, and therewith, I believe, seen God. It is this that keeps me going – the knowledge, vouchsafed in passing moments when we are lifted beyond and above ourselves, that we are an essential part of a creative process – that we ourselves, with God, are creators, and thus makers of some great cosmic future. What if I cannot see that future, or even imagine it! Such ignorance, frankly confessed, fades like darkness before light in the actual sense-experience of having lived to “vaster issues.”
John Haynes Holmes