Focusing on What Really Matters
In an ethics course, I frequently asked my students, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ ‘What really matters to you?’ After the questions, there would be a brief moment of silence, followed by the lecture for the day. I use those brief periods as a teaching device, an occasion for the students’ introspection, getting them to reflect on their lives.
Of course, I cannot answer the questions — “What do you want to do with your life?” “What really matters to you?” — for my students. By now, each student knows that only he or she is responsible for answering such questions. However, I meant for the questions to be thought-provoking, motivating my students to pursue concrete, worthwhile goals, to direct their lives in meaningful paths. Since the course I am teaching is about “the good life, a life well- lived,” I want each student in the class, in his or her own way, to have a good life; one that is filled with meaning and purpose.
The Difficulties in Pursuing Worthwhile Goals
Toward the end of the course, I discuss the lives of Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; all of whom encountered seemingly insurmountable obstacles, even tragedies, in the pursuit of a good life. However, ultimately, none of them lost sight on what really mattered to him or her. Each was uncompromisingly single-minded and, thus, firmly determined to make something meaningful out of his or her life by “standing up” for a worthwhile cause.
What is my main point? Precisely this: If you are pursuing a worthwhile goal, then know and take this to heart: There will be obstacles in your way of achieving it. Those obstacles may be by well-meaning or, perhaps, negative people, attempting to sway you from focusing on your goal. So here are two principles for pursuing a meaningful goal. First, in your heart, you must believe, and even feel, that what you are doing is right. Without that passion, you cannot move forward meaningfully with your life.
Staying Focused in the Midst of the Difficulties
Second, you must single-mindedly pursue the good, despite all the adversities you are encountering. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche: To have a why to live for is to endure almost any how. The why is your aim, purpose or goal and your motivation to pursue it. The how is the obstacle that stands in the way of achieving the goal.
Keep on Hoping
Of course, like most meaningful achievements, what I am saying is easier said than done, requiring many set-backs and even long periods of discouragement. That is why I take to heart — and I hope you will — the advice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was arrested for criticizing Communism in the former Soviet Union and sentenced to eight years of imprisonment in the Soviet concentration camps:
“All that the downtrodden can do is go on hoping. After every disappointment, they must find fresh reason for hope.”
Keep on hoping, aiming at the worthwhile goals you set for yourself! Keep on moving forward, going after them, even if you might seem to be moving backward! That requires the mental and moral courage to pursue your dreams, which is unlike those timid souls who fear that their dreams are too difficult to achieve and give up on pursuing them.
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 3: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts V – VII, trans Harry Willetts (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1978), p. 298.