…some victory for humanity
“…some victory for humanity”
Horace Mann (1796-1859) said: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. None of his business, you may say. You are entitled to have the sort of life you want and whether it involves victories or defeats is entirely up to you.’Besides,’ you might add, ‘there are no reasons for being ashamed to die, only for being ashamed to continue living.’ That would represent quite a normal, middle-class view encompassing moral, practical and potentially theological views.
But I think Horace Mann has a point. The victory to which he refers, however modest, is a clear demonstration of fulfilment. A life worthwhile, a life of purpose, these are the results of the victory he sets as our target. It’s not that we don’t have targets – sometimes too many of them, often unattainable, frequently absurd. ‘Ask yourself to do what you are able, then a little more. That is enough against which to make your self-appraisal.’ My words when abolishing annual appraisals.
We talk a lot about purpose and help many to find and then achieve their purpose. It can be rooted in themselves, their families, growing beyond the upbringing and education they received as a child. It can be creating something new, truly a victory for humanity. It may be to build a house or a business. If the latter, that business must have a purpose beyond merely creating wealth. Becoming rich is a consequence, never a purpose. Whatever else, it must be a victory.
We like our victories to he spectacular. The very word conjures up images of Horatio Nelson standing on the bridge of HMS Victory, winning the battle but them being shot and dying. Victories are not often like that. Great victories are more about the kind of achievement Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had when they conquered Mt Everest to be the first human beings to do so.
Good as spectacular victories can be, most of us are not destined to achieve such acclaim. Our victories will be less notable, perhaps even unnoticed by most people. They are nonetheless victories and we should be proud of them. We never know what influence we have on others. It is usually greater than we think. Moreover, it is often not immediate but quite delayed.
I knew a little old lady who taught the lowest level in primary school. Miss Whitwell, she was called. Slight of figure, modest of demeanour, she was the epitome of the downtrodden junior teacher. Dickens would have had a field day describing her. I remember the one thing that she taught me – how to colour-in a picture. Short strokes repeated persistently. I learnt it once for life, and from a rather deranged child I became a willing learner.
Miss Whitwell, you see, had actually taught me much more then colouring. She had taught me determination, a little bit of self-control, the meaning of humility and the importance of kindness. Above all, she had taught me that it is possible to learn. She had achieved a victory for humanity. Of course, she would never have thought of that.
Or perhaps she did.
I certainly still do.