The Starting Point

My song "The Starting Point" is the strongest statement of personal philosophy which I have put into verse. But experience has shown it can use further explanation. People, including close friends, often misunderstand it or understand it only superficially. This essay explains more directly what I intended to express in the song.

People often have grand visions of how the world could be. They're especially likely to have such dreams when they're young, but then to gradually give them up under the weight of harsh experience. Sometimes it's an act of betrayal that makes everything seem hopeless. Sometimes it seems that others just won't recognize what should be glaringly obvious. But it may be the dream itself that's disconnected from reality, and the consequences would be disastrous if it ever could be realized -- or that it has been realized, and its results have always been disastrous.

Achieving a vision almost always requires some action from other people. There isn't very much you can aspire to on a desert island. But some people pursue dreams which require everyone else in the world to follow them. We see this in slogans such as "No one is free till everyone is free." This means that others must cooperate, whether they like it or not. People become only a means to an end. This way of thinking leads to the advocacy of force to achieve the ideal, and can ultimately lead to totalitarianism. Some end up in a true-believer mindset; others give up in frustration.

As a result of the West's philosophical heritage, people often disconnect their ideals from their lives. There is Caesar's, and there is God's. There is the flesh and the spirit. The real and the ideal. Don Quixote dreams the impossible dream. John Lennon imagines. People urge politicians to do things that they would never stoop to doing themselves, then express contempt for politics.

But if your ideal is a valid one, it should be one you want to live even if other people don't. Before you can spread an ideal worldwide, you need to implement it in a microcosm. Living an ideal means creating a space where you can live a part of what you'd like to see on a larger scale. If you believe in freedom, this means being on the alert for alternatives which maximize it for yourself and those close to you. If you believe in not being a parasite on others, it means making sure you always earn your way. If you believe in honesty and free speech, it means not concealing your own views just to get along. It means finding opportunities to be with people who live in a way compatible with yours, without hiding from everyone who disagrees. It means not tossing a principle aside when it's inconvenient.

The decision to live by an ideal serves as a test of it. If you just talk about what things would be like in your particular utopia, then remember that "utopia" means "no place" -- and that's where your dream will remain. If you want to live by it at the unchosen expense of others, it's easy to want something for nothing. But if you live the way you think life should be, taking full responsibility, others may take note of your example.

Willingness to carry out one's ideas isn't a guarantee they're right -- there are people who'll gladly commit all sorts of atrocities for their so-called ideals. But a disconnection between goals and actions strongly suggests that there's something wrong with one or the other. An ideal that isn't worth living by isn't worth living for.

The life which is worth living is one without a rift between ideals and daily activity. This is often a difficult goal, and the conflicting demands of life often make it hard to tell which way to go. But the more it's achieved, the more satisfactory life can be.

The song

The Starting Point
Music and Lyrics: Gary McGath, Copyright 1998
  Build a little piece of the vision you love.
  Build it up with your own hands.
  It may not reach to the skies above
  Or span a thousand lands;
  But everything starts with one person,
  And then with just a few.
  Build a little piece of the vision you love.
  It has to start with you.
You once had a dream of tomorrow,
But life got in the way.
Too many defeats, too much sorrow,
And here you are today.
But if there is something you treasure,
That you can get to grow,
Then you'll live your dream in full measure,
And never let it go.
You once put your trust in your leaders,
And then you found they lied.
The stories you learned in school readers
Were hopes that quickly died.
Though everything may have turned sour,
As all your dreams came due,
You still have it in your own power
To build one life that's true.
You fought and felt wounds deep inside you,
And wondered what it's for,
You looked for the answers denied you,
Till you could search no more.
But truth grew with every defender
Throughout our history;
Integrity that won't surrender
Is living victory.

The road keeps on going forever,
From where you have begun,
And you keep on walking but never
Can come to where it's done.
But every new mile that you cover
Makes living worth the cost,
And every new truth you discover
Is wealth that can't be lost.

Last updated February 12, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Gary McGath

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