In the past week I’ve met or heard the story of two people who aimed to make a difference in this world. Both of them had to face their own epiphany moments. One broke from the comfort of institutional supports; the other broke from the comfort of pursuing a lofty mission. Both men reveal the art of the triangle balance – of self, of institution, of the greater world that contains both.
The man I met is a French architect. He is not an illustrious architect; he is a good one who designs small office buildings and homes. A few years ago, as he turned 50, he was working for a large firm that was doing well and offered all the benefits that large firms provide. Certainty, a sense of fulfilling one’s obligations to one’s family, the absence of financial concerns.
It was a sound trade-off. His labor in exchange for meeting essential material needs. The work did no harm. But it was also essentially unfulfilling and he asked himself, at what point would he actually begin engaging the world as he saw fit.
He left. He knew it would be difficult for at least two years and he needed his wife’s understanding and her buy-in, which he had. He needed to think more entrepreneurially. There was an edge to each week. He took work that might seem dull; in the first place to pay some bills, but ultimately, as often as not, it turned out to have its own wrinkles and challenges.
He became less judgmental. Meaning, he did not apply a set of expectations based on institutional standards of what was worthy of his efforts. He engaged the world more directly, without the mediation of institutional values. And in the end, he found more than enough clients and met their needs by giving them more than just his time.
The man I heard about was a seminarian who wanted to change the world. He saw all its problems and all its injustices and he lived to fix the root causes. He took a posting in Africa and in the cluster of villages he served, he saw that fixing the world of the people there meant providing clean water, improving crop yields, getting a fair price at the market.
His global view shrank. He did not forget the global perspective so much as set it aside so that he could focus on material changes in the here and now. He appreciated the irony that while he was infused with a spirit that lies beyond this world, his sense of satisfaction came from enhancing lives on a very physical plane.
The common thread in the stories of both men is they both became more grounded.
They forged a more direct connection between themselves, their livelihoods and the change they wanted to make. One wanted to engage the act of design; the other wanted to see more people drink clean water. Neither of them became well-to-do or rose in any hierarchy. Both of them found greater satisfaction beyond the dictates of larger institutions and grand goals.
They trusted their own eyes and assessed what they could see, both in themselves and in the people around them. The tangible world in front of us doesn’t hold all the answers, but it isn’t a bad place to begin.