“If your life’s work can be accomplished in your
lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Those words gave me pause—a big pause.
I read them in an article about sustainable agriculture (as a South Dakota native it’s sad to see the systematic poisoning of the earth as the basis for our agri-business). Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, was speaking of the patience it takes to work for change when the world seems insatiable for whatever is cheap and easy, and when multi-national corporations are arrayed against you. Still, he does what is good and right, even if he will not live to see the fulfillment of his vision.
Those words are for all of us, no matter what our vision or calling in life. “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Business can hardly focus on anything larger than quarterly earnings. Political leaders think only of what will win re-election. How far we are from the Iroquois wisdom: “In our deliberation, we must consider the impact of a decision on the next seven generations.”
Our life’s work, I’m afraid, is far too small. We think mostly of what will pay the bills and buy a few gewgaws and pleasures as pale recompense for all our hard work. It’s understandable. Who can blame us for wanting just to do our job, collect our paycheck and eke out some version of the good life?
But if my life’s work is only about me, my family, its horizon ends at the grave. A truly great life’s work, one that lives beyond death, must be about someone beyond me and my little comfort circle. It has to care about children—my own, yes, but also the vulnerable child of the stranger. It has to invest in programs and institutions that will outlive me and bless generations yet unborn. It must be fired by a vision that seems impossible by human reckoning: unless God gives the grace and power it can never be done.
Have you ever actually thought that big—What is my life’s work?
Reinhold Niebuhr says it so memorably.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”