Monday, July 18, 2011

Means and Ends

One of the things that I cannot help noticing is how often people make such an idolatry of the means to a certain goal, that they actually end up by forgetting the ends they were originally meant to pursue. We see this, for instance, with the Pharisees, who were so intent on keeping the Sabbath (or what they thought was keeping it, in any case), that they forgot what was the original purpose of the Sabbath's institution in the first place. It was left to Christ to remind them that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

And yet, are we not guilty of doing it quite often ourselves? We are so intent on following a certain means to a goal, that we forget the goal itself, or are even willing to sacrifice the end if it gets in the way of what had originally been only recognized as being a means! Perhaps the most obvious example is that of money. Quite apart from any spiritual considerations (and spiritual writers have always, rightly, regarded an inordinate desire for money as quite dangerous to the soul), it is simply insane from any perspective at all to sacrifice a normal, healthy human life to the pursuit of wealth. After all, what, precisely, is the point of trying to accumulate riches? Is it to gain happiness? As the saying goes, money cannot buy happiness. It may be a cliche, but that is because it is true. Yet there are so many people who are willing to sacrifice normal everyday life in the pursuit of wealth, that even if they ever do gain wealth (by no means a guarantee, of course), it will be at so great a cost as to be neglible in comparison. (Contrast that with the example of St. Francis of Assisi).

That is not to say, of course, that we should not pursue goals, and in fact discipline ourselves so as to attain them. An athlete, for instance, or a musician must devote many long hours to practice to acquire the skill that they wish to possess, and many of those hours they would much rather be doing something else. But they also (or should at least) have a particular goal that they are trying to attain, and have reflected that such sacrifice is worth the cost. The very love of the game, say, or the very love of music, is such a passion in them that even if they never become particularly successful, they would on reflection recognize that their love of sports or music justified the hours of practice. It brings its own happiness, so to speak. In other words, they realized one goal, at least, one of the many benefits of being an amateur (which term itself reflects the love involved.)

But what is so great a problem today is that so many people do not take the time to truly reflect what they wish to do. They may think a particular course of action will bring them happiness, and so they set out along that path. But even if later on it becomes apparent that happiness will not be found along that road, they nevertheless continue to pursue the means for its own sake. Why is that? Is it because we become so focused on the means, that we forget what we set out to do? Have we made an idol of the means, so that it becomes more important to us than the ends? Something to think about.

Of course, apart from being rooted in God, any goals become utterly meaningless, as we are reminded by the book of Ecclesiastes. But in the light of Christ, we can be re-focused on what is really important, both our ultimate goal of our heavenly home, that we are, after all, on a pilgrimage to, but also the places we may stop to lodge at along the way in this life.