As I enter middle age, this question recurs more insistently than ever: what is worth doing? How ought I invest my time, precious as it is? What achievements, pursuits and aims are deserving of my ambition? The last twenty years have passed with breathtaking swiftness, and it’s natural to begin assessing one’s legacy – not in terms of personal acclaim, career status or material possession – but by measuring enduring accomplishments and contributions. What of value have I produced, and what progress have I made toward developing a better understanding of permanent things?
Reviewing the events of my life, only a few activities stand out as meeting these criteria. It must be granted that loving our families and romantic partners ranks among the most fundamental and gratifying of our duties. Unconditional and sometimes undeserved, devotion to family forms the irreducible basis of social integrity, the soil in which a vibrant, just culture can take root and thrive. Age and experience, as well as hardship, demonstrates our dependency upon family and loved ones who sacrifice their energies to improve our wellbeing. Looking back, few emotions rival the depth of joy felt in response to the selfless support of my family. I have pained them greatly through reckless selfish acts, yet they remain my stalwart champions. My commitment to them easily ranks among the most worthwhile of my endeavors. With increasing age comes a greater sense of urgency to express my gratitude and deepen my relationship with them.
But love of family is only one dimension of love. Where ought romantic love rank in the hierarchy of valuable pursuits? For much of my life I considered eros to be of central importance. Indeed, I thought romantic love was the principle aim of my existence. I mistook the goal of obtaining the object of my erotic desire for life’s chief good, and only after losing my romantic partner did it occur to me that my longing was misguided. As Socrates argues in Symposium, beholding individual beautiful bodies should spur us on to contemplate the source of Beauty itself or, as the Christian tradition would interpret it, God. My longing for satisfaction in and through a romantic partner could only end with disappointment and disillusionment, as well as my failure to perform the sacrifices required of a healthy union. I perverted a virtuous institution into an instrument of therapeutic self-fulfillment, and I took more than I gave.
When we pursue love as an anodyne promising release from the anxiety and oppression of solitude it demeans our romantic partners and reduces supernatural intimacy to vulgar dependency. Genuine and selfless romantic love recognizes partners as opportunities to expend oneself in realizing another’s potential, and only through mutual sacrifice can either partner attain fulfillment. By giving oneself away for the sake of the other, we secure the liberation and contentment found in self-denial. Romantic partners are conduits beyond ourselves – the more we invest in their felicity the further we transcend our particular limitations and encroach upon the boundary of the universal: the Beauty-in-itself that imbues and animates our longing. Romantic love is indeed a worthwhile ambition, but only in a partnership devoted to the pursuit of eternal ends, not as the means of temporary satisfaction. Alas, some lessons can only be learned from experience.
There remains one other sort of activity that has afforded me enduring satisfaction, and for similar reasons as discussed above. Apart from love, no other pursuit enriches my life the way artistic endeavor does, and no other activity peels back the surface of things to reveal a hidden significance the way art can. Demarcating the limits of our capabilities, creative exertion strips us bare even while transporting us beyond the ordinary confines of our daily routine. So ill-equipped am I to create art – there is no false modesty, here – that I am continually astonished that such paltry efforts manage with varying degrees of imperfection to disclose something undeniable about the world and our place within it. Our creative impulse is an act of defiance against our base natures and illuminates profound truths about our vocation. Even our feeblest creative efforts somehow manage to transgress conventional, exhausted modes of worldly interaction and elevate our vantage point above the crude materialism that frequently distorts our gaze.
During creative activity we reveal contours of orderliness, balance and symmetry that defy easy detection during the course of our mundane lives. Our imposition of form onto ordinary materials, sounds and words casts into relief a hierarchy of competing and subordinate goods and a spectrum of comparative values, and we discover a locus of meaning coursing through and around us. Creativity shows us to lie at the intersection of eternal forces that outstrip our control or comprehension, and despite our meager efforts we marvel at the miracle of our achievements. Art is greater than the sum of our contribution – we are blind, inept co-participants in the creative act, recruited by higher powers and exploited for nobler ends than we could foresee. The artist passively surrenders his- or herself to an interplay of invisible influences, and it is the varying degree of abandonment that distinguishes the amateur from the master. The former wrestles to enforce his designs upon obstinate nature, while the latter surrenders control to nature herself and becomes the sublime instrument of her will.
Loving selflessly and creating authentically require acknowledging our finitude and humbling ourselves before forces greater than our ambition. Success in both pursuits demands we sacrifice our desire to a higher purpose and recognize our limited worth in relation to the infinite value revealing itself indirectly through our imperfect efforts. All that is worth doing calls us to abandon ourselves and enter the service of permanent things.