The fact that the outcome of our actions doesn’t always coincide with our wishes doesn’t diminish the importance of the motives with which we act.
When I read a book I sometimes speculate on the motivation that caused the author to spend many hours over many months to write it. Several recently published books raised that issue for me. And this issue has also arisen in regard to my own book, in which I am trying to ‘work a few things out’.
I think that the desire to ‘work something out’ must be a major motivation for anyone who goes to the trouble of writing extensively about it. We may have started with a desire to be wiser or smarter, but as we persist, we are likely to find that the intention with which we began is slowly turning into something else.
Two books have recently raised questions for me about their authors’ motivation in writing them. One is the book by John Bolton, “The Room where it Happened”, which I have no intention of opening, even if a stork were to drop it into my mail box. I don’t see any value for me in learning what Bolton has to say about world affairs. But listening to Martha Raddatz’s interview with him a few evenings ago, I was interested to hear that the grounds for his resentment against the president is his betrayal of conservative values and the endangerment of imperialist America’s role in the world. Bolton said he chose not to testify in the senate impeachment hearings earlier this year because they were based on the Democrat’s concerns, which are different than his.
I started reading another, very different book, which I won’t identify here because my reason for giving up part way through says more about my reasons for picking it up in the first place, than the quality of the book itself; I bailed before the author had a chance to fully unfold his chosen theme, which is the historical life of Jesus.
It seems unfair for me to now criticize this author’s perspective. I was following him well enough at first, when he was sharing his finding that Jesus was not the only figure at that time considered to be the Son of God (a status with a very different meaning then than it has come to have after two millennia of Christianity). But when many pages went by enumerating trivial examples of self-proclaimed gods (such as Roman Emperors, who had the clout to proclaim their own divinity), I gave up on the book. Whatever potential there is for finding a deeper truth through Christian faith, it doesn’t belong in the same dimension as such sociological examples from Classical Rome and Greece.
I can recognize in my own book, still under construction, that I am also wrestling with questions of motivation. I am not especially drawn to notoriety or self-assertion, as I suspect Bolton may be (since he has already sipped from that cup). And I am not drawn to the exploration of historical records, as it relates to the Christian view of divinity or of any other spiritual vision. I am trying to see meaning in the death of a loved one, and to understand my own role in that death.
Like ex-National Security Advisor Bolton and like the scholar of early Christianity, I too am a bystander trying to make sense of life-changing events. And like anyone who is grappling with events that are momentous for them, I feel my intentions changing as I go along. I am discovering that intention—the root of motivation—has an unexpected side-effect. If we honestly pursue one—especially when it has invaded our lives—it is bound to evolve. Most of us are not like Michelangelo, who said that he saw his sculptures already present in blocks of stone; and then he liberated them from the surrounding rock.
I suspect that most of us only discover our purpose by pursuing it. Then, if we are lucky, we may one day find ourselves being guided by motivations that are very different from the fitful squirming, which propelled our first attempts to comprehend what has happened to us and to our world.