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Our lives are an unwritten book, partially begun but with an unknown amount of pages still remaining. What will I do with those unwritten pages? What great deeds of courage, what sad tales of disappointment and confusion, what grand adventure and boundless joys are going to fill these blank pages? And in this yet-unwritten book, what is going to be my masterpiece that will define my life, and when will it occur?
Of course, our whole lives, the whole “book”, is everyone’s masterpiece, but within a book, there is always a climax. There is always a peak that defines the adventure and changes it forever. So too, in our lives, there is a moment, or a series of closely related moments, that are the peak of our story, our finest work, our grandest adventure. This is our greatest masterpiece.
I have completely abandoned the idea of trying to figure out what my masterpiece will be. I do not know what great deed I will perform that will endure as my legacy, as my climax, as the event that defines my life. But as I look around at other people’s masterpieces, I have discovered that the greatest of masterpieces were composed later in life. Sure, they had early successes (and early failures), but almost all of the greats of the world did not do their finest work until they had reached the full maturity of a ripe, old age.
To reach a truly fantastic destiny, for most of us, it takes a lot of time. It takes many years to build the base of experience needed to construct our finest masterpiece. A General cannot win a war without having fought many battles as a soldier. So too, we will not create our greatest masterpiece without constructing (and likely failing in) many smaller masterpieces.
One possibility as to when my masterpiece will occur is that it will model this pattern of something that occurs late in life. It may so happen that I will have years and years of experiences, disappoints, celebrations, formation, training, challenges, and joys that will all prepare me for a great work at an old age. If this is the case, then it impacts how I view my current work. If this is the scenario that will unfold, then it means that I must view all of my current work (my business, this blog, my friendships, my daily labors) as PREPARING me for my greatest masterpiece.
This perspective changes everything. It means that I can view the next 35 years as practice. It means I can view my daily work as a puzzle, not a problem. It means I can view my life decisions as check points that will lead me to an unknown destiny. I do not worry about what is next because I do not know what is next.
I once saw a shirt that said, “Not all who wander are lost.” I am wandering in my life right now, I am drifting from many different tasks, but I can assure you (and myself) with great confidence that I am NOT lost. I wander to many different experiences, and they are all adding up, forming me little by little, and preparing me for my greatest masterpiece. Some of the experiences are challenging, some are exciting, ALL of them are formative. All of them are molding me, preparing me for a destiny I know not what it will be. But I wander nonetheless, traveling through the wild and journeying down untraveled paths, picking up pieces of gold (that perhaps to others look like useless stones) and gathering them in my bag and saving them to help build my greatest masterpiece. You can learn a lot when you wander.
There is a second possibility from which my greatest masterpiece could arise: my masterpiece could be created in a great and immediate stroke of impulse. I could be put in a situation that will call for an immediate choice, a choice that will be filled with much distress and anguish, and yet I choose it anyway. I will see a cliff of great and tumultuous danger, and instead of thinking how to get across, I will just jump. Immediately. Without explaining to anyone why I am doing what I am doing. I think of it as the “Hero's Instinct”: the willingness to lay it all on the line, right now, no questions asked, and perhaps with no one to tell the story. I greatly long to have this instinct in my life, and on many occasions, I think I have faintly displayed it, though it has never cost me my life. I wonder if someday that it must.
The Hero's Instinct is not heroic if the one who possesses it thinks little of his life. It is precisely in the Heroes love for life that his action is so heroic. He must love this life and the good that is in it, while still willing to give it up freely. Any man who can love his life thus, and still be willing to lose it so freely in a moment defending Truth, or Love, or the Family, or Friendship, or Honesty, I say let this man be praised.
This is why I silently pass the war memorials in downtown Indianapolis. This is why I do not speak at Arlington Cemetery. This is why I long with great fervor to travel along the beaches of Normandy. The endless rows of white, nameless crosses that stand in silence, as if to cry out “The name of he who is buried here is unknown, but his deeds are not. He who rests here laid it all on the line, immediately, without counting the cost, so that you may roam free.” These silent Heroes all created their greatest masterpiece in a sudden and immediate flurry that left them as witnesses to all who pass their silent tombs and hallowed graves.
This great mystery of the Heroes Instinct is best be embodied in the words (and actions) of Martin Luther King Junior. He ended his last speech ever given with the following: “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
And he was assassinated the next day.
This is what I mean by the Hero's Instinct. I long to embody it in my actions, and though it may not cost me my life, I can’t imagine how it should not. Let these words be my official proclamation to the world that, if my life were ever to befall such an end, I would not consider it a sad and tragic day. I would consider it my Greatest Masterpiece.