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The Great Conversation

I’m bouncing again, book-to-book, pulling this book off the shelf, scanning over that sentence on the Kindle app, and stacking the pile higher. It’s funny how one thing sparks another thing, it’s what Robert Maynard Hutchins called The Great Conversation, written work building on written work, theory built on theory, across time, but shrunken down to just the books in my personal library. Each offering a little something to keep the imagination abuzz. This morning’s great conversation started with a little stoicism:

“What’s the meaning of life? Why was I born? Most of us struggle with these questions—sometimes when we’re young, sometimes not until we’re older. Rarely do we find much in the way of direction. But that’s simply because we miss the point. As Viktor Frankl points out in Man’s Search for Meaning , it is not our question to ask. Instead, it is we who are being asked the question. It’s our lives that are the answer.” – Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic

That led me right to the source, and I pulled Frankl’s classic off the shelf for additional perspective:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

Outside I hear the telltale roar of hot air balloon burners. It breaks my focus and I walk outside barefoot to look for the familiar visitors, but all I hear is them announcing “we’re close”. Bare feet quickly turn cold on the pool deck and I move back inside. Shoes are one of our best inventions as a species, but we miss so much information about our environment that is telegraphed through our bare feet (today’s telegraph: put some shoes on you fool, that’s what they were invented for). I glance outside and spot the yellow top of smiley face balloon over the trees and, seeing its landing elsewhere, give a nod of welcome and get back inside to the great conversation. Life is calling, but I have a few things to mull over first.

“Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others – this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality – your life in others.” – Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

I read that passage for the first time in 1989, the year I graduated from college, not in Doctor Zhivago, but as a quote from a book by Warren Bennis called On Becoming a Leader. This book, along with Frankl and more recently Holiday’s books, can be thought of as stepping stones in the stream of life, there for me when I needed a solid footing on my way across. And they’re also voices at the table, part of the great conversation happening still. There are hundreds of voices at that table: authors, poets, songwriters, coaches, family and friends. All voices in that great conversation, ripples across time, influencing me in ways subtle and profound. And you’re at the table too. Welcome.

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