When I was younger, I was often saddened by the realization that everything we do on Earth ultimately comes to nothing. The frustration expressed in Ecclesiastes. Build a great business, fine -- but someday that business will disappear, and then what will be left? Nothing. Same with laws, relationships, family, you name it -- it all comes to nothing in the end.
I realized later that I was looking at the problem the wrong way -- essentially asking, "what end is worth trading my life for?" Seeing that end as "what i've done in the world," weighing it against the value of my life, and concluding (reasonably, I think) that I could find nothing that was worth trading my life for. Ultimately, I was unable to come up with any end in the real world that was worth trading my life for. And that was depressing.
But then, with the death of my friend Heather in college, I changed my paradigm. Instead of concerning myself with the Ultimate End, I would concern myself with the process. It didn't matter if Heather lived forever -- what mattered was that I was able to spend time with her. It doesn't matter if everybody dies whether you help the poor or not. Helping the poor is an end in and of itself. It doesn't matter whether your business will ultimately fade or your law ultimately be changed. The value came in the action -- in DOING what was good to do.
The key premise change here was my rejection of evangelical theology in favor of a philosophy of enlightened self-interest. Instead of seeing my life as a sacrifice for something outside myself, I began to see my life was an end in and of itself. Therefore, I was not trying to find something worth trading my precious life for. I was not trading my life at all. I was seizing it, and seeking to live it to the fullest.
But ultimately this became frustrating too, because I found it to be aimless. Yes, you "do the right thing" or the "fun" thing or the "engaging" thing ... but it never leads to anything. I still had a hankering for some purpose -- some goal.
Then this winter, I learned the value of short-term goal setting -- and the extraordinary psychological benefits of determining a desired outcome and working toward it. I began to put those into practice, and it made my world much brighter.
Then yesterday, it occurred to me that the way to integrate the thruths I had learned was this: "We are trained to see processes as leading toward goals. But I see life as a series of goals, comprising a process." The goals we set -- sending the kid to college, getting the MBA, learning about AIDS, getting in shape -- those are individual goals which when strung together become the PROCESS of a life worth living.
The goals themselves are not eternal, and certainly not worth trading our life for. But the process of setting -- and achieving -- those goals is the process of living itself.
Ends to a means. Hmm.