I normally don't put much stock in beliefs, but I do believe something that I don't think I can back up with anything but conviction: that we have a duty to excellence. It isn't a dreary duty, but a joyful one. It is an honor to be able to pursue something beyond, something more. It is the fulfillment of our being.
Carl Jung observed in his essay “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man” that while we are the realization of more than all of the previous generations could have hoped for, we are also their greatest disappointment.
We have such riches available to us, riches of which countless ages before us could not even dream. Access to all forms of art, music, literature, and vast libraries of scholarship and primary works, are all so readily available to us. As Isaac Newton phrased it, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, or we can if we choose to do so. We can stand on their shoulders to try to reach that little bit more, or we can sit at their feet and listen, or take up a conversation with them. No human generation before us has been blessed with such abundance.
It is not enough to be exposed to it. The way some people behave you would think them like the film in a camera that needed only to be exposed to one thing and then another. Exposure may be a noble effort, but who is it that is being exposed? These treasures do not call out merely for our attention, they call out for us to rise to meet them. To become a person who listens to the music that reveals the arc of another's flight of soul. To become a person who can see through the surface of the painting that lets us see how the painter saw with much more than our eyes. To become a person who can collaborate in bringing something greater into ourselves, our lives, our world.
This is also true of more rational enterprises. We have access to so much more data than we can manage to make sense from. We have more powerful analytical tools than ever before. Yet reason and logic are often most foreign in the arenas that matter the most to us. Public debates are often simply attempts to repeat memorable phrases. To spread ideas like viruses, rather than like rational beings. To make converts, not conversations. As the challenges grow, we recoil from having to bear them. It is, after all, unfair that we should face such difficulties. But it is also unfair that we should have such abundance.
The retreat into a simpler world, an imaginary one, has been underway for a very long time. Some see it as something akin to a religious exodus into an imaginary promised land. While others see it as an exodus into progress: of society, of technology, or of humans, in some abstract way. And lastly, some yearn for the imaginary justification of destruction. There is a reason why these are the persistent dreams through the ages—we all yearn for this. And there is a reason we all yearn for this—we won't get it.
Real change is difficult. It doesn't come as expected. It doesn't demand that we give up the burden of ourselves as easy sacrifices, but that we live up to ourselves. It is the most difficult task we can engage in. The task of truly living our own lives. And when it comes to the end of our lives, that is what will matter, not the comforts or the things that were merely “good enough” but that excellence that we may achieve, that realization of our potential, that rising up to meet what is best and most important in life. Carl Jung called this process Individuation, the process of truly becoming an individual.
Perhaps it comes down to the question of how much of our lives will we really live? Or will we really live much of our own lives at all? How far will we rise to the challenge of our greatness? How many souls will we rise towards and allow to touch ours, and how deeply? How many minds? How many hearts? How much beauty will we be ready to perceive? How much truth? And when the time comes, did we try to bear the responsibility of being the wonder that each of us is? Did we rise up to truly meet life? I think that will be what matters when we may look back in final hours, before we turn to look ahead.