When I was a senior in high school, I came across a poem which became my moral compass in a way, for my life ever since. It’s called Self Dependence by Matthew Arnold (you probably had to read his poem “Dover Beach” in high school):
WEARY of myself, and sick of asking What I am, and what I ought to be, At the vessel’s prow I stand, which bears me Forwards, forwards, o’er the starlit sea.
And a look of passionate desire O’er the sea and to the stars I send: ‘Ye who from my childhood up have calm’d me, Calm me, ah, compose me to the end.
‘Ah, once more,’ I cried, ‘ye Stars, ye Waters. On my heart your mighty charm renew: Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you, Feel my soul becoming vast like you.’
From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven, Over the lit sea’s unquiet way, In the rustling night-air came the answer— ‘Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.
‘Unaffrighted by the silence round them, Undistracted by the sights they see, These demand not that the things without them Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.
‘And with joy the stars perform their shining, And the sea its long moon-silver’d roll. For alone they live, nor pine with noting All the fever of some differing soul.
‘Bounded by themselves, and unobservant In what state God’s other works may be, In their own tasks all their powers pouring, These attain the mighty life you see.’
O air-born Voice! long since, severely clear, A cry like thine in my own heart I hear. ‘Resolve to be thyself: and know, that he Who finds himself, loses his misery.’
What I took from this poem in particular is the idea that we all have work which God has given us to do and our job is to do that work wholeheartedly without seeking approval or worrying about the consequences of performing this work.
I suppose that it is this willingness to devote one’s self wholeheartedly to the work God has given us to do without regard for the consequences which separates great men from average men. The problem, of course is precisely those consequences. We like to think that if we are doing the right, noble, Godly things, we will have comfort, admiration and hopefully even some prosperity to enjoy along with our greatness. However, as the lives of people like Lincoln, King, Ghandi and Jesus remind us, this is rarely how greatness works. So many great people paid a terrible price for their single minded determination to do the right things. We look back at them now with admiration, but sometimes I wonder if alone, late at night, these people didn’t wish that they had taken the easy, average way of living life. Is admiration decades and centuries after one’s death adequate compensation for the cost paid to do great things? Surely God’s reward is more than sufficient, although too far off.
I wonder if the stars ever get lonely?