Monday, October 26, 2009

A goal to last one hundred years

Lots of people talk about big goals. They talk about goals that stretch beliefs and capabilities and relationships. But for most people, really big goals are a little like lottery tickets: the purpose of the big goal is to give you a shot at a big win.

There's another kind of really big goal. It's the kind of goal reflected in one of my favourite quotations (usually attributed to Socrates?):

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.

So much meaning is packed into that one sentence. Planting trees is not like making art that will last a hundred years (and more). Artists seek some kind of fame, some acknowledgment or justification or legacy. Often scientists seek the same kind of reward: we mark their discoveries with their names so that what they have achieved lives on after them.

With the possible exception of Johnny Appleseed, we don't remember the people who plant trees. Quite often, we don't think about them at all. We look at beautiful old trees and admire the trees - not the people (or squirrels) who planted them.

My favourite poet, Yeats, said "all things fall and are built again/ and those that build them again are gay/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread." To paraphrase, crudely, he was saying that the nature of the world is that nothing will last, but building nonetheless gives us a kind of happiness, a happiness that changes us from people who are afraid of life to people who are living it.

What would you build if building would reward you only with the happiness of being a builder instead of a victim (of time, of fate, of an unfriendly world)?

The next time you find yourself thinking, "if only . . . .then I would be happy" try planting a tree. Maybe you'll find that society grows great when people build for a future that promises them nothing as individuals except the happiness that comes to builders.

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