Look round the habitable world: how few
Know their own good, or knowing it, pursue.
TWO QUESTIONS TEST OUR CHARACTER AT ITS DEEPEST LEVEL. Marcus Aurelius was not mistaken when he said, “The true worth of a man is to be measured by the objects he pursues.” So it’s important at regular intervals to ask ourselves these two questions: What are we pursuing? and How are we pursuing it?
The “what” of our pursuit. Some things are wrong to pursue, morally and ethically, and these endeavors can’t be made worthy by any amount of excellence in the manner or method of their pursuit. Yet even within the realm of what’s right, we need to be careful about what we try to achieve. The “good” is often the enemy of the “better” and the “best,” and we ought to care enough about the quality of our lives to pursue the very best that we can. Even more important, however, we need to be cautious in the criteria by which we judge what is good, better, and best. By some criteria, for example, it would be better to pursue becoming a doctor than becoming a nurse, but by other (equally valid) criteria, the person who has become a nurse has pursued a goal no less praiseworthy than that of the doctor, despite the doctor’s higher social and economic profile. To be completely accurate, we’d have to say that a person’s true worth is measured not only by the objects he pursues but also by the reasons for which he pursues them.
The “how” of our pursuit. Even with admirable pursuits, we need to make sure that we pursue them in a principled way. Contrary to popular belief, the end does not justify the means, and we are never excused from wrongdoing simply because we had an honorable objective. And not only should the pursuit of our goals be principled; it should also be passionate. “The roots of true achievement lie in the will to become the best that you can become” (Harold Taylor).
It’s important, then, for us to pay attention to our pursuits. Not many good goals can be reached by merely “going with the flow.” It takes deliberate, conscious choice to keep ourselves pointed in the right direction — and in whatever direction it’s right for us to be pointed, it takes character to fire up our pursuits with principle and passion.
“Every calling is great when greatly pursued” (Oliver Wendell Holmes).