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Tuesday, August 24 2004 19:00
“The great use of life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.”

This saying of the 19th century American psychologist William James will immediately strike most people as true. James’s words express what in our hearts we obscurely feel, that to make our earthly existence meaningful we must find something valuable enough to endure beyond us.

If we do not discover meaningful activity, then we are saddled with negative feelings that get us down. Life comes to seem worth little, and we wonder if our having lived will make any difference at all.

But, let me suggest, our thinking about what lasts is usually too limited. We instinctively feel that we must put up a building, make a discovery, invent some product, or do something equally large-scale for us to memorialize ourselves. However, that way of thinking ignores other possibilities much closer at hand.

Given the human propensity to make a mess of our lives, achievement may instead involve us in repairing things in us that have gone wrong. To be human means, for most of us, to have made mistakes, some of them with terrible consequences, and working to set these errors right counts as a noble human enterprise.

I think that one of the great achievements of life is to get addictions under control. The person who manages to break with the destructive habits of alcoholism, for instance, has done at least one marvelous thing in his or her life. Given the difficulty of admitting that one is the captive of liquor and then turning to others for help, it counts as a lasting human triumph.

If you have accomplished this, you have achieved something lasting. And its value comes not from a single action but from a new way of life marked by daily vigilance over oneself.

A religious sister, Nancy Malone, describes what that experience is like. Caught by alcohol, she felt her spirit to be dying. As part of that spiritual death, she also felt “hopelessness, self-loathing, and shame.” After eight years of this humbling experience, she finally broke the habit’s grip, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and now knows “in my very woundedness and weakness and sinfulness,” her true self.

Reforming one’s life after being addicted to other drugs is another achievement that makes a life worthwhile. The terrible waste that a habit of cocaine or heroin inflicts on a person may mean that not everything can be restored. However, breaking with the habit ranks among the great human achievements.

Rebuilding one’s life after a divorce is another challenge that many people face. If you have found it a bitter experience, you may, as a result, have lost the ability to trust another human being.

The psychologist Thomas Moore explains well the challenge involved in restoring that trust: “You will be trusting again when you learn the essential paradox about love. You can only open your heart effectively when you are strong and insightful, when you love your own life and take care of yourself.”

This, to me, offers a difficult agenda to anyone who has been wounded in a love relationship. Starting over, rebuilding one’s place in the world, learning to know oneself in a new way, - - all require the most difficult work.

Repairing other family relationships that have been shattered by misunderstandings, slights, or downright insults also poses a major challenge. Estrangement among members of the same extended family is so widespread as to daunt optimism about human relations.

It is painful to hear about such breaks that so often involve adults no longer speaking to one another or accepting any other contact. Often this happens for reasons that, looked at objectively, do not justify any kind of break.

Two women whom I know have reestablished their close friendship after 13 years of no contact. The reconciliation has come about because one of them offered her friend an apology. Of their restored friendship, the other woman now says: “I have to hand it to her - - it is very seldom that someone apologizes and does not make any excuses.”

What I am suggesting here is an alternative way of looking at human stature. Rather than focusing on headline material whereby one creates something big and obviously impressive - - a building, an organization, a book, a film, - - we might look toward those who have repaired something in their lives.

This, too, qualifies for what William James called “something that will outlast life.”

Richard Griffin