During my summer vacation in 2003, I finally read Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Lonesome Dove. Although friends and family had often hyped the novel, it is one of those books I had never gotten around to reading. Eighteen years after it first appeared in print, I finally finished reading it — all 945 pages.
McMurtry is a delightful storyteller who simultaneously weaves numerous narrative plots with artfully developed and intriguing characters.
As the book begins, the two main characters, Woodrow Call and Augustus MacRae, two former Texas Rangers, are residing at the Hat Creek Cattle Company in the small backwater town of Lonesome Dove, Texas. Augustus is happy to live day-by-day frittering away his time with simple pleasures. Woodrow Call, on the other hand, is driven each day to accomplish something that is physically demanding, if not exhausting. While Augustus sits on the porch all afternoon and sips whiskey from a jug, Call is breaking his back in the hot Texas sun digging a new well. When they hear of the wide-open spaces of Montana, Call begins to dream about accomplishing something big, at least one last time before he dies. Together and for different reasons Call and Gus decide to take a cattle drive to Montana.
The novel tells of the deep abiding friendship of these two men who know each other so well. Even though they exasperate each other, each knows the other perhaps better than they know themselves. Shortly after they have begun the long, dangerous and arduous journey from Texas to Montana, Gus pulls Call aside and observes:
“I hope this is hard enough for you Call. … I hope it makes you happy. If it don’t, I give up. Driving all these skinny cattle all [the] way [from Texas to Montana] is a funny way to maintain an interest in life.”
“Well, I didn’t,” Call said.
“No, but then you seldom ask,” Augustus said, “You should have died in the line of duty, Woodrow. You’d know how to do that fine. The problem is you don’t know how to live.”
“Whereas you do?” Call asked.
“Most certainly,” Augustus said. “I’ve lived about a hundred to your one. I’ll be a little riled if I end up being the one to die in the line of duty, because it ain’t my duty and it ain’t yours either. This is just fortune hunting.” [Lonesome Dove, 242.]
As I read the story McMurtry tells of these two men and their friendship, I found myself asking a very important question: does it matter ultimately what we do or accomplish in our lives or is it more important to live life well? To phrase the question somewhat differently, is the question “who am I” ultimately answered by what I have accomplished in my life or by the person I have become?
Long before Larry McMurtry wrote his novels, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle maintained that the goal (telos) of human life is a whole life lived well. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguished our human “virtues,” that is what we do well, from our “character,” that is who we are over time. We become excellent or virtuous at something, Aristotle maintained, through practice. We cannot become good at anything without first making mistakes. Sometimes the more mistakes we make, the more we learn. Human life is like that. We can only become excellent at something as we try again and again to get it right. When I used to teach ethics, I would ask my students on the first day of class, “am I an honest person?” They of course replied that they had no way of knowing. In short, I was asking them whether I had the virtue of honesty and they were saying to me that they did not know me well enough to judge my character. As they got to know me through daily interactions with me, they were more able to come to a decision on that score.
Today much of what passes for ethics inquires only into individual decisions, asking whether they are right or wrong. This sort of ethics invariably identifies and discusses quandaries where clear-cut “yes” or “no” answers seem all but impossible. An ethics that asks about character forces us to ask different kinds of questions. What kind of person am I? What or who do I wish to become? These sorts of questions are never easy to answer. One thing, however, is certain: who I am is not the sum of the decisions I have made or have failed to make but rather a reflection of my character.
I am convinced that finding happiness and satisfaction in life depends to a great degree on how you have come to terms with the tension between what you do as opposed to who you are. I myself have not yet found balance between these two poles. My self-definition too often is based only on what I have accomplished. On this issue at least, I am still too much like Call, but want to be more like Gus.
However we understand ourselves, God is not through with us yet. It is only as we endure the difficulties and travails of the trail that is set before us, through fits and starts, trials and errors, that we begin to find within ourselves the proper balance between being and doing. Through God’s grace we can only hope to become the whole person God calls us to be.