Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the thoughtful quote, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Those are beautiful thoughts and it seems like a pretty straightforward statement. However, because so many of us are of a different mind and can get twisted in our thinking, a case can be made as to what it means to live well and what it means to be honorable, useful, compassionate and how to make a difference.
For instance, two articles from the USA Today caught my eye a few weeks ago. The first one, “Crips in Utah: Gang culture invades an unlikely turf" by Kevin Johnson, shows choices people make can cause them to change and then to justify their actions.
Johnson’s article told how Tongans who were attracted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moved from the Pacific Islands to Southern California. Then to avoid the Crips gang culture for their young people, the well-meaning people came to Utah. The shooting of Siale Angilau by a U.S. marshal as he charged the witness, who was testifying against him, focused attention to a problem.
The police knew Angilau “as ‘a ringleader’ in a group that specialized in violent ‘takeovers’ of area convenience stores, restaurants and other small businesses.”
Angilau’s uncle, Hema Katoa, saw a different side of him and his brother claiming while they “began making choices beyond our control they maintained close ties with the family.”
Johnson continued, “Simultaneous allegiances to the gang, family and their religious faiths, authorities said, are common among TCG members — qualities that seem to shatter the profile of the typical gang member. (Although many members are Mormon, Katoa said Angilau was Methodist.)”
Another young man was caught in a drive-by firebombing and had a Book of Mormon in his pocket, Ron Stallworth, a founder of the states gang task force, stated in the article.
These are tragic examples of young people with conflicted lives who then make errant choices. It is the same mindset that allows people to cheat on their spouses, business partners or in other ways take advantage of others.
The second article, “Why mass killers need to explain their plan” by James Alan Fox, discussed the recent killings in Santa Barbara, California.
It is a typical tale of a disturbed loner who ranted about his frustrating adolescence and his troubled life.
Fox wrote: “He apparently wanted us to know that he was the good guy, not the evil one, who was ready to exact retribution for the injustices he had endured and ultimately to win one for, quite literally, the little guy.”
This is sad and dangerous thinking that killing others can justify an existence.
The next day Maya Angelou died. One would need to be from Mars not to know what an extraordinary woman she was. She rose from poverty, a broken home and a hardscrabble existence to finally triumph through her courage and her abilities. She wrote of her life in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and wrote other books as well as essays and poetry.
What causes a well-liked high school football player from a caring family to put one face to his family and another to the world? What is it that helps a person challenge mental illness and work to overcome it and ask for help or conversely fall into a black hole? What causes a woman like Maya Angelou to overcome all?
Perhaps a look at a few of Angelou’s quotes can help us to see we can choose our path and we can choose well:
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
“I know for sure that love saves me and that it is here to save us all.”
“There is a place in you that you must keep inviolate, a place that you must keep clean. A place where you say to any intruder, ‘Back up, don’t you know I’m a child of God.'”
Clear-thinking minds will be literal in heeding Emerson and Angelou’s words; an errant one will rationalize and walk the selfish path.