‘Leading Lives that Matter’ edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass

This isn’t like any of the other books I’ve written about on this blog. Today I’m talking about Leading Lives that Matter, an anthology edited together with written commentary by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass.

This book is a behemoth. I’ve been reading it on and off for almost a year and a half now, but I finally finished and it was well worth the time it takes. Plus, it’s split up in digestible chunks, so I was easily able to set down for months at a time and come back to it when I wasn’t so busy.

Leading Lives that Matter is a detailed exploration into the big questions of living our best lives. Per usual, the anthology’s subtitle says it all, “What We Should Do and Who We Should Be”.

The use of an anthology brings together a collection of some of the most brilliant thinkers from around the world and throughout history (with a noticeable focus on the European, American, and Judeo-Christian traditions designed to capture arguments frequently shaping the dialogue in the US American context specifically).

Selected authors include:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Homer, Dorothy Day, C. S. Lewis, Robert Frost, Abraham Joshua Heschel, William Wordsworth, Annie Dillard, Martha Nussbaum, James Baldwin, Thomas Merton, John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoy, Malcolm X, and many others.

What makes this approach so uniquely brilliant is that we aren’t simply handed one answer to each question on how we should live. This book is not a prescription for exactly how you ought to be living. Instead, the editors challenge readers to understand a diverse range of beliefs that often contradict each other so we may come to our own articulate understanding of our beliefs in relation to these thinkers.

Basic Structure

This book is organized in a way where you might not need to read it linearly, but it also provides some benefits for those who chose to read it linearly from Prologue to Epilogue. I chose to read it linearly, so I’ll be laying out its structure in the same linear format.

First, the anthology kicks off with a prologue focusing on two autobiographical readings – William Jame’s “What Makes a Life Significant” and Albert Schweitzer’s “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor”. These whole-bodied stories comprise many of the specific questions that will be addressed later in the anthology and set the stage for the big overarching questions, “What Should We Do? and Who Should We Be?”.

After this, the anthology separates itself into two lop-sided sections – Section 1: Vocabularies and Section 2: Questions. The introduction-like Section 1 comes in just under 80 pages while Section 2 comprises the main body of this book – a whopping 368 pages.

After this, Leading Live that Matter closes with a 50 page epilogue consisting mostly of Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilych. It could be that I read it with all the previous questions fresh in my mind, but this was by far my favorite part of the book.

The Death of Ivan Ilych contains a nuanced subtext that spurs thought on many of the questions addressed in earlier sections of the anthology, it takes a very effective deep dive into the family and culture that surrounded Ivan Ilych, and In a very poetic sense, the final words of the final reading in Leading Lives that Matter is of a man dying.

All this to say, DON’T SKIP THE EPILOGUE.

Section 1: Vocabularies

Starting with a section on “Vocabularies” is unlike anything I’ve read before, but it is definitely a simple and well executed idea. Before going into any specific questions the editors take a step back in order to define key terms and expressed the “Vocabularies” that they believe animate much of the critical thinking of our lives. In addition, these vocabularies will help us to frame the relationships between authors that pop up later in the book.

They split this section into 3 subsections – the vocabularies of “Authenticity”, “Virtue”, and “Vocation”.

At their surface, these are words that many of us more or less understand. However, the Vocabularies section forces us to take a deep dive into these topics and truly understand what many of their pivotal thinkers actually believe.


Selected Readings: Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Solitude of Self.

At the risk of oversimplification, Authenticity is often expressed through ideas such as listening to your inner voice or being true to yourself, but the selected readings force us to think more deeply about things we’re used to hearing in short 2-dimensional quotes.


Selected Readings: Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Theodore Roosevelt’s An Autobiography.

Virtue is also an idea that many of us feel we understand, but that can often allude us. I came into this reading fresh off of a lot of classes featuring Aristotle and Plato in a way that primed me to broadly challenge Aristotle’s idea of Virtues and Roosevelt’s hyper-masculine sense of individuality. Yet, even I was able to come out of these readings with some positive views on the contributions made by the vocabulary of Virtues.


Selected Readings: Mathew 20:20-28, Lee Hardy’s The Fabric of This World, Gary Badcock’s A Way of Life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking, and Will Campbell’s “Vocation as Grace”.

Vocation (sharing its root with voice and vocal) concerns itself with who we are “called to be” both individually and collectively. Grammatically, being called to something infers some kind of calling force (whether that be “God” or “the universe”). So, Vocation understandably has the strongest sense of spirituality and often pops up during readings from theologians, rabbi’s, and religious scriptures.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the vocabulary of Vocation has some of the largest diversity of thought compared to the other vocabularies. This is evidenced by the editors’ choice to include such a large number of selected authors compared to Authenticity and Virtue.

Section 2: Questions

After setting the groundwork with detailed definitions of the vocabularies the editors send us into the main body of the anthology, Questions. In total, they choose 7 such questions as subsections.

If you chose to go non-linear, this is where it might be most appropriate. Each of these “questions” can easily be read independently of each other in whatever order you like. However, the questions are edited in such a way where later sections often reference readings in previous questions and ideas can build on one another. As I said, I chose to read these in order and I recommend it if you are able to, but it won’t change too much if you decide to jump around.

Question #1 – Are Some Lives More Significant Than Others?

This question is an important one because it pushes against possible simplifications and assumptions in the anthology’s title. Leading Lives that Matter, understandably, holds an assumption that there are lives that “Matter”… but this walks dangerously close to assuming other lives don’t matter, or that some matter less than others.

This is where the concept of significance becomes important. It’s very easy (and in my opinion just) to wave off the question “Do some lives matter more than others?” with a resounding “NO!”, but Aristotle’s concept of significance provides a more unique challenge which forces us to more accurately articulate our beliefs.

In addition, it’s worth repeating that in this question and in all future questions, the selected readings challenge us from EVERY direction. So, don’t think we’re only gonna get people that repeat and repackage Aristotle.

Selected Readings:

C.S. Lewis’s lecture, “Learning in War-Time”

An excerpt from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics

An excerpt from Homer’s The Iliad

The Martyrdom of Perpetua

An excerpt from Dorothy Day’s Therese

Three biographical sketches: Ray Kroc, Iris Change, Joseph S. (“Smiley”) Landrum

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Question #2 – Must My Job Be the Primary Source of My Identity?

This is a question with some serious cultural baggage and the readings have definitely left me thinking differently about careers, hobbies, friends, family, and identity. The truth is that we have really wrapped up our identities into our jobs/ careers.

When you introduce yourself, one of the first questions is always “What do you do for a living?” and for those of us that remember childhood well, it’s littered with the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”… but for better or for worse, we all know it means “What job do you want to have?”

By and far, this section is the one that has left me with the biggest lasting impact. I first read it more than a year ago and I am constantly thinking of it and giving people advice based on the nuance presented here.

Selected Readings:

An excerpt from Russell Muirhead’s Just Work,

Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Why Work?”,

Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in the Mud Time”,

Margaret Piercy’s “To be of use”,

H. G. Wells’s “The Door in the Wall”,

An excerpt from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath,

William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us” and “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”,

Gilbert Meilander’s “Friendship and Vocation”,

Question #3 – Is a Balanced Life Possible and Preferable to a Life Focused Primarily on Work?

I find balance to be a very interesting concept. At its surface lie questions of the generalist verse specialist debate, but there’s a lot more depth here. Do we even have the option to “focus” our lives primarily in one direction? Perhaps the idea of focusing “primarily on work” is just ignorant of the unavoidable interdependent relationships we have with one another.

But this question also launches another question, “What does balance even look like?”. I recently wrote about Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and I can’t help but connect this to concepts of a balanced life between civilization and wilderness. Most importantly, people vehemently disagree on what balance between wilderness and civilization actually means. Some consider the rural as the perfect spot between the two, but Henry David Thoreau also launched a tradition of those who saw the balanced life as straddling the extremes of both wilderness and civilization.

Now, you probably won’t read these selections and think of wilderness or ecology, but the general question remains, “What does balanced even mean?”

Selected Readings:

Robert Wuthnow’s “The Changing Nature of Work in the United States: Implications for Vocation, Ethics, and Faith”

Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s “Generativity Crises of My Own”

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “There’s No Place Like Work”

Abigail Zuger, M.D. “Defining a Doctor”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith”

Wendell Berry’s “An Invisible Web”

Two Eulogies for Yitzhak Rabin by King Hussein and Noa Ben Artzi-Pelossof

Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels”

William Butler Yeats’s “The Choice”

Jane Addams’s “Filial Relations”

Martha Nussbaum’s interview by Bill Moyers

Question #4 – Should I Follow My Talents as I Decide What to Do to Earn a Living?

I landed on this section right in the middle of my longest break away from the book, but when I came back it was like I didn’t lose a beat. This question lies at the intersection of many ideas like responsibility and free will. I even found it brushes up against Question #2 “Must My Job Be the Primary Source of My Identity.”

This section extremely thought provoking and I know it’s a concept that I often think about. In addition, this section gave me the opportunity to read James Baldwin for the first time. Frankly, this book is filled with authors I had heard of and always wished to read. One of the side benefits of this book is the sheer number of famous writers I finally got to read first hand.

Selected Readings:

Mathew 25:14-30 (The Parable of the Talents)

John Milton’s “On His Blindness”

An excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

An excerpt from Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte

An excerpt from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s screenplay of Good Will Hunting

And James Baldwin’s “Sonny Blues”

Question #5 – To Whom Should I Listen?

Per usual, this section comes at the question from a range of directions. However, one of the most memorable parts of this reading was how they flipped the question at the end to also mean, “How could we best give advice to others?”.

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself in both situations. I ask a lot of advice from people (and need to decide “to whom I should listen?”) and I also am frequently asked to give advice myself. Both sides of this relationship are incredibly important and I’m glad the editors included it in this book.

Selected Readings:

Will Weaver’s “The Undeclared Major”,

Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds”,

An excerpt of The Autobiography of Malcolm X co-written Malcolm X and Alex Haley,

An excerpt from Lois Lowry’s The Giver,

Vincent Harding’s “I Hear Them… Calling”,

Willa Cather’s “The Ancient People”,

And an excerpt from Garret Keizer’s A Dresser of Sycamore Trees

Question #6 – Can I Control What I Shall Do and Become?

Free will and individual agency are often hot topics of discussion. I know the free will debate popped up many times in my high school English classes. It’s easy to lock oneself into one camp or the other, but this section opens things up with some very specific and nuanced challenges.

In truth, there is definitely some paradox at play here, and frankly, the positions of these readings are often more subtle than people assume. For instance, William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” is a widely popular poem among the individualistic self-mastery class of Ayn Rand enthusiasts, but we seldom ask ourselves, “What does it actually mean to be ‘master of your fate’ and ‘captain of your soul’?”

Selected Readings:

William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”,

Thomas Lynch’s “Passed On”,

Stephen Dunn’s “The Last Hours”,

The Book of Jonah,

Sullivan Ballou’s Letter to His Wife, 1861,

Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Weddings”,

And an excerpt from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts from Solitude.

Question #7 – How Shall I Tell the Story of My Life?

This one came to me as a very pleasant surprise. I love stories and I know they are important, but I’ve never considered the question “How Shall I Tell the Story of My Life?” Of all the questions this one challenged me with a completely new idea, “the way you talk about your life might matter.”

If I had to guess at the outset, this would be the last question I would have expected in this anthology – which makes it all the more important. I have a feeling that I’ll be leaning more and more towards this question as I get older.

Selected Readings:

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”,

Mary Catherine Bateson’s “Composing Life Story”,

An excerpt from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow,

An excerpt from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden,

Dan McAcdams’s “An American Life Story”,

and Michael T. Kaufman’s “Robert McG. Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives”.

Wrapping it Up

If all of those authors and questions sound intimidating to you, I get it. This book is probably not for everyone. I fully recognize that I’m a unique individual to choose a 539 page anthology for my pleasure reading, but if Leading Lives that Matter sparks your interest, I can’t recommend it to you enough.

It’s big, it’s long, and it is frequently dense, but I am incredibly grateful that I read this book as early as I did in life and I get the feeling that I’ll be turning back to these readings time and time again for wisdom and perspective.

(This post has since been edited and re-published on Medium).

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