Is the ‘good life’ a life of purpose?

The loss of purpose, which can afflict those who are facing death or who have experienced a loss, is the subject of Milton’s haunting ode. Words by Jessica Lim.

If a ‘good’ or ‘purposive’ death is linked to a ‘good life’, then what does it mean to lead that ‘good life’? Specifically, how can one lead a ‘good’ or ‘purposive’ life when one’s primary skill or purpose is suddenly changed⎯perhaps by sudden and devastating emotional or physical traumas, or the slow onset of ageing and illness, which hinder one’s ability to do one’s job (one’s ‘task’)?

This is a question at the heart of John Milton’s sonnet, ‘When I consider how my light is spent’

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

On one level, Milton’s sonnet is in no way a poem about death⎯certainly not in the direct way that his famous elegy Lycidas is. Yet in this sonnet, Milton raises the question that is at the heart of what it means to reach the end of one’s life and to be able to call one’s life, and therefore one’s death, purposive and fulfilling. Where is the dignity and meaning in life if one’s abilities are ‘lodg’d with me useless’?

This fear of feeling useless, this fear that one’s life is devoid of purpose, is common. A quick Google search of ‘how to cope with feeling useless in life’ yielded, for me, 99,200,000 results in 0.43 seconds; ‘how to give my life purpose’ garnered 6,780,000,000 results in 0.63 seconds. ‘What’s the point of living if you have nothing to live for’ brought up 908,000,000 results in 0.49 seconds, and ‘giving up on life’ indicated around 1,860,000,000 results in 0.38 seconds. (Google algorithms have probably pegged me for a highly depressed individual seeking psychological help by this point.) Of course, a quick Google search and numbers of results are just numbers and figures⎯we live in the age of the Internet algorithms, which seriously limit the ability for an average non-statistician to process and interpret data. But it’s undeniable that there are many articles about facing grief and loss, purposelessness, and feeling useless.

Milton’s poem is all about his fear and anxiety at facing life, and eventually, in his Christian worldview, judgement and death, having lived a life with a talent ‘Lodg’d with me useless.’ The opening line is full of temporal pain: ‘When I consider’ shows Milton’s present mental emotional state: ‘how my light is spent’ shows the continuous reality of a past event: his ‘spent’ light. This has plunged him into a world of metaphorical (and for Milton, literal) darkness, ‘Ere half my days’: a sentence of a purposeless life, one of the great fears and anxieties for people facing death.

For Milton, clearly one aspect of his lost ‘light’ was his eyesight; famously blind, he depended upon amanuenses to scribe his poetry. But there is a deeper sense in which ‘light’, which Milton again refers to as ‘that one talent which is death to hide’ is more abstract and metaphorical. A reference to Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30), the ‘talent’ signifies a God-given skill. In the parable, a master gives his workers a talent of gold. The workers who invest their ‘talents’ of gold are rewarded, but there is one worker who hides his talent, claiming to have feared his master’s justice. That worker is punished. Milton uses this image of the talent to speak of creative potential curbed; perhaps, as Dayton Haskin muses, it could refer to Milton’s difficulties in translating foreign texts, a task for which he was responsible as a civil servant. In any case this poem expresses Milton’s anxiety that he cannot be a ‘useful’ worker for his God or fellow man.

Milton finds solace in redefining human dignity and service, or usefulness and purpose, within his Christian framework of faith. An all-powerful God, he reasons, does not need Milton’s eyesight or skill. Instead, Milton locates purpose in life and worth in the act of life itself. For the poet, there is bravery and dignity in his living a life of quiet patience rather than constant striving: for, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’


Categories: Reflections