Lives That Matter

Recently, while reading one of my favorite writers and spiritual guides, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, I was surprised to come across a passage in which he doubts that he has achieved anything of what he had hoped for in life.  

That reminded me of another man whom I admire and revere, Martin Luther King, Jr., who expressed something similar toward the end of his life.  

What strikes me as odd is that Martin Luther King, Jr. must be one of the most famous historical figures of the twentieth century, and Thomas Merton was not just a best-selling author but is undoubtedly the most well-known monk of recent history.

That both King and Merton were wrong about themselves is not just obvious to us now but was obvious to almost everyone else in their own lifetimes.  Both men changed history, King by leading the Civil Rights Movement and Merton by changing monastic life, redefining the spiritual life, and influencing Vatican II.

Furthermore, the words of King and Merton continue to inspire.  For me and many others, King and Merton, though dead, remain living voices. 

Despite all the evidence that King and Merton were historical giants, I am struck by the sense of failure that haunted both of them.  How can we account for each man struggling to recognize his tremendous accomplishments? 

The answer seems to lie not in what they accomplished, but in what they hoped to accomplish with their lives.  In their expectations, they aimed high, higher than they were able to reach.  In King’s case, he led a movement that exposed and significantly defeated segregation’s demonic hold over American life.  But King hoped for something more; he hoped for the dawning in America of what he referred to as the Beloved Community.  King hoped not just for new legislation, but for deep-seated reconciliation of all races. 

Merton achieved wider readership and more fame and recognition than perhaps any other religious figure of his era.  But Merton hoped for something more; he hoped to achieve the silence that led to knowing God.  But the constant demands placed upon him to write, publish, and speak out on religious and other issues—demands made by his faithful audience, by church authorities, and yes, often by himself—made his dream of disappearing into the silence impossible. 

Hypothetically, both men would likely have experienced greater peace of mind if they hadn’t aimed so high.  King’s early dream was to be a university or seminary professor, something he would likely have achieved if he’d turned down the demand of others to lead the Civil Rights Movement.  Merton dreamt of quitting his writing.  He fantasized about telling his publishers, editors, readers, and himself that he’d put down his pen for good.  

But the truth is that our nation and world would be immeasurably poorer if King and Merton had settled for a more comfortable and happier life.  By aiming higher than they could achieve, they achieved what few others in history have achieved.  Both remain like comets who continue to streak across the sky.  

The temptation that King and Merton felt is the same temptation that every one of us faces.  That temptation is to lower our expectations, to settle for “it’s good enough.”  If there is a lesson that King and Merton leave us with, that lesson might be this.  The true goal of life is not to be happy, but to matter, even if we feel we have failed.