“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life. For if you haven’t had that, what have you had? … Live!”
The first time I attempted to read The Ambassadors by Henry James, I threw the book across the room. I was in my early 20s, and I had no patience for middle-aged men who spent more time thinking than doing. But then as I aged, I returned again and again to The Ambassadors. This quotation changed my life and it continues to help me make choices and take risks.
The Ambassadors of the title are Lambert Strether and Sarah Pocock. Strether, the middle-aged editor of a literary journal, is dispatched to Paris by the widowed publisher to retrieve her son Chad from the city’s delights. The rewards: Chad will take over the family business, and Strether will wed Chad’s wealthy mother. Strether, however, is beguiled by Chad, who has become a polished, well-connected man. The widow then dispatches her married daughter, Sarah Pocock, who hastens to Paris to retrieve both Chad and Strether.
The words above occur about a third of the way through the book, as Strether — addressing a young man — recognizes the smallness of his own life and the risks he refused to take. The remainder of the book shows Strether taking a stand at the risk of losing all.
I finally read these words when I was settling into my career and “the rest of my life.” But these words spoke of regret and longing. They cautioned me: although I had accumulated few regrets so far in life, I knew I stood in the hallway of a house with many doors. I knew that each door opened to more rooms and closed to many others. Each step was freighted with both gain and loss. Faced with many choices, beset by doubts and worries, I realized that I was choosing to play it safe.
This was common enough. But Henry James reminded me to claim what I considered to be “my life” and to live it passionately. Live without regrets. Seize chances. Keep moving. And James reassured me: if I live passionately, consciously and intentionally, my actual life choice doesn’t matter. (Don’t worry: Henry James also said, “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”) James’ clarion call in The Ambassadors inspired me. I could awaken from my paralyzing dread. I didn’t need to worry about the doors I left unopened. And I could, like Chad, fling my arms wide to what was right in front of me. If I did, I believed my true calling and my true self would find the space to emerge.
I have stories about pivots in my life. I’ll tell those another time. What The Ambassadors did for me, however, was change my entire mindset. Who knows? Perhaps I was a bit bolder at those later critical moments because a few years earlier I had decided to “Live!”
Think about an event in your life when you chose a particular course of action specifically because you wanted “no regrets.”
Further Reading: The Ambassadors, by Henry James (1903)
“My Favorite American Novel: How Henry James Invented Modern Fiction with The Ambassadors (1903),” by Ted Gioia, http://www.fractiousfiction.com/the_ambassadors.html
Note: I was delighted to stumble upon this essay by Ted Gioia when I was looking for a link to The Ambassadors. I very much enjoyed Ted Gioia’s masterful book Delta Blues: The Lives and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (2007), in which he surveys the Mississippi Delta’s greatest blues artists with loving wonder. http://tedgioia.com/deltablues.html