The Crucial Thing

“[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.”
― A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh stories

Ouch. I love sharing quotations from authors and thinkers I admire, and I like to imagine I think through what the authors are trying to say before I quote them. I do admit, however, to having a particular quotation on my Facebook page that I don’t quite understand all the way. I know nothing of its context; I only gleaned it from an introductory philosophy course I took as a freshman.

It’s from a philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard; an existential-y sort of person, as I understand it, who happened to write a thing at one time that I liked and subsequently ripped out of context and quoted him. Here’s what he said:

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
–Søren Kierkegaard

I like the quote because it makes me feel inspired and noble and hopeful that I do have something I believe to be true and for which I could live and die.

It makes me think of other quotes that affirm the ideas that, even as there is Great Possibility, some things are certain.

Like this one:

“What is true deserves to be known and to be believed. What is good deserves to be embodied. What is beautiful deserves to be enjoyed, to be loved. And what is just deserves to be defended.” ~Kevin James Bywater

That’s from the director of a study abroad program in England called Summit Oxford, which seems like one of the neatest opportunities I can imagine. You should all check it out! I think you can find it through www.summitoxford.org but if not, let me know and I’ll fix the link thing.

What I’ve been wondering is this: what do other people think important enough to live for or die for?

What is one thing you think so wrong with the world that you’d die in the effort to make it right?

What’s one thing you think so right and marvelous that it motivates you to keep living?

Is there an idea that’s important enough that you’d fight for it? Or one that’s awful enough that you’d fight against it?

If there’s something worth dying over, is there anything worth killing over—and what on earth would that thing be?

What stirs your soul and your mind and your body to action?

All these questions I’ve been mulling over for myself, and I’d like to hear your thoughts, if you’d care to share them. Maybe they aren’t thoughts to share, but to mull over for yourself, I don’t know. All I know is I think Kierkegaard was on to something. People ought to know what the “crucial thing” is for them.

Maybe A.A.Milne is right too, though. Those crucial things aren’t passed down through heredity, like the color of our eyes or hair. Nor can we depend solely on what others say; we must face the “laborious business” of thinking for yourself. To own a belief, we ought to engage with ideas deeply and seriously.

I also think of the scene in Lord of the Rings, perhaps my favorite scene in the Peter Jackson’s movies, where Frodo turns to Sam and asks for a reminder of what it is, exactly, they’re risking their lives over.

Oh! it’s a great scene! Because, as Sam explains, they’re fighting for something unseen but real nonetheless; a hope that this ruined world is not all there is.

And because I think it’s very much worth quoting the whole thing, here it is.

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

Thanks for reading!

<><Jo

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