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Archive for June 19th, 2020

“Hunkered Down”- Now at the Principle Gallery

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I slept and dreamt
that life was joy.
I awoke and saw
that life was duty.
I worked — and behold,
duty was joy.

–Rabindranath Tagore

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When I first read the short poem above from the great poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore some time ago, it struck a chord with me. It so simply, in just a few lines, put across an observation that takes most of us a lifetime to realize. That is, if we ever do realize it.

Duty was joy.

But what is duty? Is it in being a good parent? A faithful spouse and a loyal friend? Is it in what we do to make a living? Or is it in being decent and caring human being?

Perhaps, it is how our lives touch the lives of others? Could that be a duty?

I don’t know for sure. Most likely joy is not a one size fits all proposition.

My own feeling is that duty is much like having a purpose, a reason for living. I remember reading Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl‘s transcendent book, Man’s Search For Meaning, which described his time in the Auschwitz death camp. He observed that those who were able to survive the horror were those who somehow had a purpose for their life, who saw a future that they needed to reach ahead for. This purpose, even a modest one, often gave them the drive needed for survival, creating a path forward for them.

In the year after being liberated from Auschwitz, Frankl gave a series of lectures that were the basis for his book. In one he spoke of Tagore’s poem and that final line: Duty was joy:

So, life is somehow duty, a single, huge obligation. And there is certainly joy in life too, but it cannot be pursued, cannot be “willed into being” as joy; rather, it must arise spontaneously, and in fact, it does arise spontaneously, just as an outcome may arise: Happiness should not, must not, and can never be a goal, but only an outcome; the outcome of the fulfillment of that which in Tagore’s poem is called duty… All human striving for happiness, in this sense, is doomed to failure as luck can only fall into one’s lap but can never be hunted down.

In short, lasting joy and happiness cannot be pursued as a goal on their own, without a responsibility to some higher purpose.

I am writing this because sometimes I need to be reminded of this. I have been struggling at times recently in the studio, seemingly fighting with myself to find something that just doesn’t seem to be there. The harder I tried to find it, the further away it seemed. It was like I was looking for something to quell my anxieties and bring me some form of easy happiness. To bring me effortless joy.

I should have known better. Yesterday, I just put down my head and worked without thinking about the end result. I focused solely on my purpose in each moment, the task at hand. Concentrating on doing small and simple things with thought and care was my duty, as it were. As the day went on, my burden felt lessened and I began to feel joy in the work, joy in small aspects that I had been overlooking in prior days.

It was a satisfying day, one that left me feeling that I had moved in some way toward fulfilling a purpose. It may not be a grand, earth-shaking one but it doesn’t need to be. It is mine. My purpose. My duty.

And that is enough to bring me a bit of joy.

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