Have you ever felt bad for an actor or actress who is most frequently asked questions about a role they did, like, 30 years ago, even if they are still working and have had other roles? I have. I do often actually. I understand the “reverence” for roles that are now classic in pop culture, but it has to be annoying to those actors.
I admit, if I ever met Kevin Bacon I would go on and on about Footloose. So I’m a total hypocrite.
Here’s the question though. Is the goal in life to keep trying to achieve your “greatest work”? Would you be content with, say, achieving your life’s work at age 42, but you’d live to be 93? Would it be wrong to be content with that? Would it be right? Would it be healthier? What if you knew that your greatest accomplishment was going to happen in the next 5 years? Would you keep on truckin’ even though you would know it’s all “downhill from here”?
In 2010, at the Vancouver Olympics, Stephen Harper (Prime Minister of Canada) gave a speech during the opening ceremonies. In the speech he said that hosting these Olympic games and preparing for them was his life’s greatest work. He spoke as if he knew he would never get to do anything to surpass this and he was very proud of the accomplishment. I remember being absolutely struck by those words. Just to grasp the idea that someone put so much hard work into something so globally significant, they knew it was going to be the biggest achievement of their life.
It’s all relative of course. How do you measure achievement? This idea reminds me of a couple of blog posts by Richard Beck from a few weeks ago. (He is becoming one of my favorite writers btw.) The posts are about “being enough.” You can read them here and here.
This whole “life’s work” thought came to me when I was reading a story out of 2 Kings. I’m nearly finished with 1 and 2 Kings as part of my Bible reading plan. As you know, these books – don’t lie – are booooring. And full of strange, sometimes creepy stories. The kind that make you wince or go “blech” or “whaaaaaat”.
Anyway. The passage was 2 Kings 15 and it was the story of Jotham of Judah. It’s not a very long account, as he was not king very long, just 16 years. For some reason he died pretty young, 41 years old. The account put him in the “good in God’s eyes” column but also in the “but he still let the people worship other gods” column. And then there’s a simple sentence: “The construction of the High Gate to The Temple of God was his work” (MSG). If Jotham had lived longer than 41, would he have been satisfied with just being known for building a gate? I don’t know. At first, it’s a seemingly insignificant accomplishment, constructing a gate. But to Jotham, it was his life’s work. To me, that’s God saying you don’t need your life’s work to be some global humanitarian effort. Just work hard and with love where you are, with what you’ve got.
And I thought, “Wow. If an account of my life were reduced to two paragraphs, who would it say my work was?” Really, I guess that’s your obituary. But it makes you wonder, what do you want to be known for? Do you get to choose? I think you do.
But the bigger question, again, is would you be satisfied if you’ve already achieved your life’s work? Would you be satisfied with being known for only one thing? Is our ambition-driven culture making us strive for something that isn’t feasible or even healthy? Is that why we’re all stressed out all the time? Do we keep on (and on and on and on), striving as if we’re running in the opposite direction of our own mortality?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I have a feeling people ask them a lot. I have no moral of the story or clever last line either. Other than, where do you see yourself in terms of your life’s work?