I once heard an interview with an aging scholar. He was about eighty years old, and still extremely enthusiastic about the subject he’d dedicated his life to.
One of the questions asked was why anyone should care about his area of expertise: “What does it have to do with my life?”
His answer is amazing: “Well, my first answer would be: go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this.”[i]
We should all be so humble and enthusiastic with whatever we dedicate our lives to, whatever we fill our lives with.
We should all be so enthusiastic and humble, at the same time.
We should all be so devoted to what we are, to who and what we love, without denying that the same meaning, the same love, and the same life, can be found by others in entirely different ways.
Similarly, another author was asked, “What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?” He began to give a list, but then said,
But this does not embarrass me. There are many films to see, many friends to visit, many walks to take, many playlists to assemble and many favorite books to reread. Life’s too short for anxious score-keeping. Also, my grandmother is illiterate, and she’s one of the best people I know. Reading is a deep personal consolation for me, but other things console, too.[ii]
This while an old Shaker woman (a Christian denomination which is completely celibate) explained why she didn’t begrudge a happy, sexually active married life that produced children, a kind of life which went against everything she believed in for herself: “We bless marriage, because if somebody didn’t have little ones we wouldn’t have any Shakers.”[iii]
This is religion. This is life. Even when we would most love to deny it, our own beliefs and experiences cannot contain everything, or hope to constrain even one person.
Or it is simply a matter of what I found once, waiting for a train in the London Underground. Picking up a newspaper, I realized that just as the local stories I found there were a mystery to me, whatever was on the front page back home was also unknown to Londoners—yet both newspapers reported what they did with the greatest interest and urgency. And none of these concerns meant any less, for being irrelevant to someone else.
[i] Joseph Campbell, in conversation with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, episode two, “The Message of the Myth.”
[ii] Teju Cole, interviewed here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/books/review/teju-cole-by-the-book.html?ref=books.
[iii] In Ken Burns’s documentary The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God.