A good friend who is also a Camaldolese Monk, was visiting us this weekend. Like so many of us, our friend lives in a wonderful nexus of contradictions. Not only is he a monk, but he travels the world, singing and teaching about the monastic life.
Traveling and being a monk presents odd juxtapositions for him, but he is following a simple and clear calling to not only witness his own life of monastic solitude, but to share that witnessing with the rest of us.
His life of contemplation makes it somewhate easier for him to explore existential questions like what his calling might be. As we were coming back from ice cream in Palmer Square, for example, he asked me what I feel the world needs from me. In other words what is my personal calling and what do I plan to do about it.
We talked for a bit about that, but what I found most important is the importance of the question itself. He was asking, in essence I think, why I would do whatever I plan to do. Most of our life is filled with other priorities that seem to come before why, namely of what we want to do and how.
It is very easy to focus on these difficult questions. What and how have many complexities and require a ton of energy and discernment of opportunities, chance and the world in general. Being a competitive swimmer, a shoe salesman or a farmer are all immenseley complex undertakings and simply managing tactics and strategies of how to accomplish any one of them is more than a full time job.
Because of this an immense amount of energy and cultural support are built around answering what and how. There are training programs, trade magazines and vast service industries whose sole purpose is to help facilitate tactics and strategies to achieve almost any specialized carreer, interest or pursuit.
A significant driving force for supporting these tactics and strategies is the competitive nature of our world. The context in which we must succeed in most endeavors is a context of binary success or failure. Implicit is the fact that many are likely to pursue the same goal and in so doing guarantee that only the best will succeed, and by extension many, even most, will fail.
The biological reflection of this dynamic is very direct. We see both in the natural world and our cultural environment the terrific benefit of essentially sourcing the best and brightest through brutal competition. It is easy to see this both sharpens the competitors and provides a framework in which we can assign winners and losers. In nature, the criteria are simple: reproduce and survive or die. In our civilized world, we instead set objective criteria: races won, units sold, bushels harvested, etc. These simple mechanics create a dynamic of vibrancy, progress and evolution. Death and failure are necessary parts of the paradigm, the avoidance of which powerfully marshalls all possible resources, tactics and strategies.
The urgency created, and the complexity involved in avoiding death and failure clearly prioritize in many ways tactics and strategies over existensial contemplation. The Lion and the Antelope as well as the hawk and the rabbit are not likely involved deeply in descerning why they hunt and eat. Our cultural environment equally does not centrally encourage deep discnernment around such existensial questions. It is easy in fact to see the question "Why?" itself as fringe, precious and irrelevant to success or failure.
Does Michael Phelps, perhaps the best swimmer to ever live ask why he swims? Do the best companies in the world ask why they sell whatever they sell? Did Shakespeare ask why he wrote plays?
There is an ideal, obvious to my mind, where the answer is no. Just as a lion hunts because it is hungry, and hunts well because it can, I love the simple idea that successful endeavors would happen because of the simple actions in and of themselves. "Why did I climb Mount Everest? Because I could," for example. Much of life has this existensial lack of teleology. A mother, a walker, a diner, a lover all act on impulses that drive and satisfy themselves without any existensial or antecedent whys.
Why should I not pursue my career then, simply because I am good at it, and do it well because I want to be as successful as possible? Why do I need to ask what the world needs of me? To some extent I don't think I do need to ask. To a certain degree, what I do is simply a matter of opportunity and need. The opportunity to do what is in front of me, to do the things I am allowed and prepared to do. And the need to earn money in order to live. It is basically tactical which of the things I can do: wait tables, teach philosophy or design internet programs; that I choose based on maximizing income and enjoyment.
Why is important, however, when others ask me to join them or when i ask others to join me. Of the many things I can do, I choose certain activities largely based on who is doing them and what they are doing. Considering the scarcity of time and the abundance of things to do, I think many of us end up selecting a small minority of the things we could do based largely on this criteria.
What defines groups I think is very largely dictated by the why more than how or what.
I really have no way of knowing whether Michael Phelps or William Shakespeare contemplated too much why they do so well at their endeavors. But the best companies definitely do ask this question and around that answer rises culture and what does or does not attract people to join them and do there what they could also do at a million other places.