“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.”
This topic seems almost too big for me. It reads so right and then you say:
“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?”
I don’t see how I can live in Darien without that all-consuming desperation to keep my head above water.
David Anderson says
It’s possible, but not easy.
We all have to work to make a living. But if that’s all that impels us–that’s not much of a life’s work.
So, we do our work, and we make our living, but we’re aware of another, higher calling, something bigger. But don’t think about “doing big things,” but only little things done–as Mother Teresa said so well–little things done with great love. You smile at one loveless person and you have just done something for the ages.
Dave Esty says
A big and wonderfully wise essay, David.
In addition to being saved by hope, faith, love and forgiveness,
I believe that we are also saved by duty, honor and country.
Monday is Veterans Day and and a good time to reflect and pay tribute to those in our militaries whose sacrifices have and continue to Save America. They must be in our daily prayers.
Pam Anderson says
I am inspired. There are life’s little needs and wants and pleasures, but I want my work to live beyond me.
Ann Koberna says
I am drawn to the humility of this statement:
“If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” This acknowledges that no one can act alone. Such “work” would require a succession of passionate people, their common goal eclipsing their egos. “Lifetimes” spent daily placing drops in the bucket, each drop blending anonymously with the others. Each person must trust the others and surrender their life’s work to “hope, faith, love and foregiveness”, for the bucket to eventually be filled.
David Anderson says
I am drawn to the wisdom and beauty of this statement:
Such “work” would require a succession of passionate people, their common goal eclipsing their egos. “Lifetimes” spent daily placing drops in the bucket, each drop blending anonymously with the others.
Well said, Ann. We do this work in community.