For the past several years, I have hosted a golf tournament attended by former colleagues from my high school teaching and coaching days, as well as some other friends. Over the years, the event has devolved from a very intense competition in which the play is both spirited and, at times, contentious into a more laid back opportunity to renew friendships.
As both the ages and the golf scores of the players inevitably rose, the tone and demeanor of the gathering has led to less joshing and jibing and more reflecting and discussing of life issues: less whining about missed putts and more musing about life’s trajectory.
One of the participants since the event’s inception has been Mike Garvey. Mike retired from teaching several years ago and relocated from Michigan to Hilton Head Island with his wife, Sheila. But both Sheila and Mike continue to substitute teach in Hilton Head’s public schools, and the activity shows itself in his active mind and positive energy level. One evening, after a mutually unimpressive but enjoyable round on the links, Mike and I shared a drink and a conversation. Reflecting on his years as a teacher, parent, husband, and citizen of the world, Mike shared a poignant thought at the same time that speck of something caught in his eye. He acknowledged “I’ve spent the last many years of my life trying to become a better man.”
I made no attempt to explore the context of his reflection and, frankly, the point of view that my friend was speaking from was not my business. I, nevertheless, admired the sentiments that I believe led to his comment and the idea resonated with me. I was also reminded of the quote from the poet Homer who taught us, three thousand years ago, “The journey is the thing.”
As I considered both Mike’s words as well as that oft quoted direction from Homer, it occurred to me that the two men have charted a life course for all of us. Most people, I believe, proceed from an opposite point of view than Homer or Mike. They believe that “the destination is the thing.” If we listen carefully to the rhetoric of most of our friends and associates (and ourselves at times), the conversation typically focuses on life’s goals. Job promotions, rising bottom lines on our portfolios or bank accounts, or perhaps acquiring some title or position of status, tend to dominate our dialogue and our thoughts. Homer would remind us that, while goals are both appropriate and necessary, they are not “the thing.” The goal is not the source of happiness or contentment. Why? Because, as goal setting creatures, once we attain one goal we quickly set another. The joy of accomplishment is fleeting. The coach of the winning Super Bowl team has champagne poured on his head, goes to Disney World, and then returns to his office to watch films and formulate strategies for repeating the Big Game. His job, like ours perhaps, can be seen as either endlessly frustrating and demanding, or continually stimulating and enjoyable, depending upon his point of view. If he understands Homer, he will be okay with his career and his journey.
In other words, it could be said that we truly never get there. To quote Robert Browning:
Ah, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
or what’s a heaven for?
If that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t. If we really understand Homer’s dictum and Browning’s query, we realize that life is a process and not simply a destination or goal. It is what keeps life exciting and brings meaning to our lives. I was reminded of that principle by my friend Mike on our patio that summer evening last year.
It’s impossible to improve upon the succinct message of the Greek poet, but it occurred to me that a person’s success on one’s journey is not measured by where he/she ends up but, rather, by how far they have traveled during their journey. Relax and enjoy the journey as we are all a work in progress.