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A Purposeful Life

It’s been an interesting month in my reading life. I am teaching several new subjects in the upcoming school year, and I have spent most of the summer listening to Great Courses by The Teaching Company to get some background and basic comprehension of the new subject matter.

At the same time there was an article in The Classical Teacher magazine (Spring 2022) titled “Twelve Great Christian Novels” by Martin Cothran, that really intrigued me. I had already read eight of the twelve and was very motivated to read the other four on his list. I have also been working on my reading list for my ‘BFF’ Book Club (it has just two members — me and my best friend since 2nd grade). We are always overly ambitious when we create a list to complete before we get together again. In the last year or two we have been re-reading the Mitford series by Jan Karon. And, last but not least, for my ‘Sisters’ Book Club (you guessed it — me and my two sisters) we read “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak.

Here’s where my summer converges. I have listened to “The Art of Reading” (Professor Timothy Spurgin), “A Brief History of the World” (Professor Peter N. Stearns), “The Greek World” (Professor Robert Garland), and “Greece and Rome: An Integrated History” (Professor Robert Garland). At the same time, I have read “Out to Canaan,” “A New Song,” “A Common Life,” and “In This Mountain” by Jan Karon. I finished “Doctor Zhivago,” and then came the novel “Jayber Crow” by Wendell Berry from the article in The Classical Teacher. It all coalesced into this very powerful, deep reflection of the meaning and purpose of life.

In the Greek and Roman worlds society was set up to perpetuate society – to think always of the ways you could contribute to the greater whole, not to be focused on the individual. In ‘Horatius at the Bridge’ by Thomas Babington Macaulay, Horatius says:

“To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his gods.”

Since you’re going to die anyway, find a death that contributes to the life of those left behind.

The purpose to be found in life was to contribute to the continuation of the whole at the cost of the one. In “Doctor Zhivago” we follow one man as he comes of age during the early 1900’s and the revolving doors of the Russian revolutions. Zhivago is drawn to an artistic, creative life but ends up a doctor, and that inner struggle stays with him to the end of his days. Which thing is a more purposeful life? To write poetry and share insight and wisdom into the human condition and tend to the spiritual wounds of man, or to have the training and ability to tend to the physical wounds?

Father Timothy Cavanaugh, the protagonist in the Mitford series, is a pastor in a small town who serves all the members of his congregation and doesn’t stop there. He is actively working with and serving anyone who needs help in his community. And he wonders if he’s doing enough, and worries about the big needs in the world, and whether he should be doing more.

I am not any of these things, and I have the same questions – Am I enough? Am I doing enough? Where should I be doing more?

Enter Jayber Crow. Orphaned at an early age, he was taken in by an aunt and uncle who also died before he was raised. The state placed him in an orphanage and gave him a good education. By the end of high school, he feels that he has been called to the ministry and goes to college for a higher education in the things of religion. BUT --- In studying the Bible, he finds questions that he can’t get answers to, and ends up leaving the university. He eventually makes his way back to the small Kentucky town where he was born and becomes the town barber. His musings and insights into life and our interactions with one another are some of the most powerful I have ever read.

My conclusion (and I’ve reached it before in life) is that the most important work we do is within the sphere of our influence. For most of us that will be small by the world's standards of fame and celebrity. No other person on this planet, no matter how rich and famous, means to my children what I mean to them. I am active in my church congregation and work with high school age kids in that capacity. I have opportunity there to encourage, lift, and listen. Now I teach middle and high school, and my sphere grows. This is honestly more than I feel up to on the BEST of days, let alone on the days when I question what the point of my life might be. Reading Jayber Crow reminded me that even if the only influence I have for good in this life is with my own children, then I will have lived a purposeful and important life.

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Mary White
Mary White
Aug 27, 2022

Every paragraph of this post hit home with me in a different way. (I wish I knew who wrote it so I could seek you out at the next MomSquad event!) Three times each year I take a weekend away from my usual routines and chores and reevaluate my path for the next several months. September, when my kids are back in school and my summer play and gardening routines are changing, is one of those times. I look at the projects I set during my March 1 personal new year and ask myself if they still excite me. Do my routines still serve me and my goals well? Are there any relationships or commitments I need to put more…

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