Lately I’ve been doing some self-reflection. This in-between time, this time after graduate school but before a career, has made me pause and wonder about how I can lead a life that matters. In the coming months, I will have to make important decisions on where I will live and what I will do. During my senior year of college I was required to take a seminar on discerning a vocation, and luckily I saved my anthology of texts.
This week, I pulled out the old anthology and read an essay by William James, a famous American psychologist and brother of the well-known author Henry James. In his essay “What makes a life significant?” James proposes that a significant life is obtainable by anyone, not just reserved for a few heroes every couple of centuries. Anyone, regardless of age, class, or education, can live a significant life.
For James, leading a significant life requires two things: (1) a person must have a conscious ideal that he strives to achieve, and (2) he must activate virtues in an effort to reach his ideals. Such activation of virtues can be thought of as “dirt or scars contracted in the attempt to get [the ideals] realized,” according to James.
In other words, a life’s significance is in the struggle.
I have to admit, this idea is intriguing. Rather than significance having something to do with making a genuine vital difference on a large scale, I think it is much more accurate to say that significance is a way of life.
To have any consequence, to make a difference, to have significance, means being dynamic, not static.
Not giving up.
And where does art fit into the significant life?
Making art can help us and others to persevere through the struggle. Art can serve as a guide, a teacher of important themes or lessons learned during a struggle.
The act of creating art can inspire us to continue through the struggle. It can also serve as inspiration for others who are at certain points in their own lives.
What do you think? What makes a life significant?