I was walking along North Street and met a man whom I know slightly. As we walked along chatting I mentioned that my mother has shingles. He said, and I quote word for word: “At 96 you have to wonder about the functionality of life…”

I was a bit taken aback. Now I don’t want to take what he said out of context and misconstrue it, but it does bear thinking about. I do so prescinding from this particular individual and his own outlook, which one remark lightly tossed out cannot possibly identify accurately.

I suppose he’s right. You do have to wonder about life: I’m not sure exactly what was meant by functionality, but suppose I take it as meaning, purpose. This man, taken as a sort of “everyman,” is a much loved father and husband, successful and respected by friends and peers. My mother, again taken as a sort of “everyman,” is lying in bed, almost completely blind, in a lot of pain, with very poor memory. The purpose, meaning, sanctity even, of life: these are questions that belong to concrete situations. And they are not abstract: they affect my own life as well as my effective attitude to others. If this old person’s life can pass the test in my mind and heart for purpose, sanctity, meaning, then the attitude of my mind and heart which can produce affirmative answers to these questions must also motivate the way I live, my priorities, goals, attitudes, what I want to do, and crucially who I want to be, the sort of person I want to be and am committed to being.

Ambition must be attached primarily to something which is not circumscribed by business success, physical prowess, academic achievement, social standing, wealth, health or even happiness… So what is that, how firmly do I believe in it and how committed am I to its pursuit?

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