Quotations about   purpose

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One of the things I like best about animals in the wild is that they’re always off on some errand. They have appointments to keep. It’s only we humans who wonder what we’re here for.

Diane Ackerman (b. 1948) American poet, author, naturalist
“In Praise of Bats,” The Moon by Whale Light (1991)
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Added on 28-Dec-18 | Last updated 28-Dec-18
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In short, Mort was one of those people who are more dangerous than a bag full of rattlesnakes. He was determined to discover the underlying logic behind the universe. Which was going to be hard, because there wasn’t one.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Mort (1987)
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Added on 23-Feb-18 | Last updated 23-Feb-18
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There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world. It is to stoop down and lift mankind a little higher.

Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) American clergyman and writer
“Salt,” Counsels by the Way (1921 ed.)
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Added on 13-Dec-17 | Last updated 13-Dec-17
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HAL9000: I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) American film director, screenwriter, producer
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [with Arthur C. Clarke]
Added on 22-Nov-17 | Last updated 22-Nov-17
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Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver (b. 1935) American poet
“The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1 (1992)
Added on 1-Nov-17 | Last updated 1-Nov-17
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What Man seeks, to the point of anguish, in his gods, in his art, in his science, is meaning. He cannot bear the void. He pours meaning on events like salt on his food. He denies that life bounces along at random, at the mercy of events, in sound and in fury. He wants it always to be directed, aimed toward a goal, like an arrow.

François Jacob (1920-2013) French biologist, Nobel prize winner in Medicine
The Statue Within: An Autobiography (1987) [tr. Philip (1988)]
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Added on 18-Sep-17 | Last updated 18-Sep-17
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There may be no good reason for things to be the way they are.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 1 “Consolations for Unpopularity,” sec. 4 (2000)
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Added on 7-Sep-17 | Last updated 7-Sep-17
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Man is so built that he cannot imagine his own death. This leads to endless invention of religions. While this conviction by no means proves immortality to be a fact, questions generated by it are overwhelmingly important. The nature of life, how ego hooks into the body, the problem of ego itself and why each ego seems to be the center of the universe, the purpose of life, the purpose of the universe — these are paramount questions, Ben; they can never be trivial. Science hasn’t solved them — and who am I to sneer at religions for trying, no matter how unconvincingly to me? Old Mumbo Jumbo may eat me yet; I can’t rule him out because he owns no fancy cathedrals. Nor can I rule out one godstruck boy leading a sex cult in an upholstered attic; he might be the Messiah. The only religious opinion I feel sure of is this: self-awareness is not just a bunch of amino acids bumping together!

Robert A. Heinlein (1909-1988) American writer
Stranger in a Strange Land, Part 4, ch. 33 [Jubal] (1961)
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In the "uncut" original version (1960): "Self-aware man is so built that he cannot believe in his own extinction ... and this automatically leads to endless invention of religions. While this involuntary conviction of immortality by no means proves immortality to be a fact, the questions generated by this conviction are overwhelmingly important ... whether we can answer them or not, or prove what answers we suspect. The nature of life, how the ego hooks into the physical body, the problem of the ego itself and why each ego seems to be the center of the universe, the purpose of life, the purpose of the universe -- these are paramount questions Ben; they can never be trivial. Science can't, or hasn't, coped with any of them -- and who am I to sneer at religions for trying to answer them, no matter how unconvincingly to me? Old Mumbo Jumbo may eat me yet; I can't rule Him out because He owns no fancy cathedrals. Nor can I rule out one godstruck boy leading a sex cult in an upholstered attic; he might be the Messiah. The only religious opinion that I feel sure of is this: self-awareness is not just a bunch of amino acids bumping together!"
Added on 11-Aug-17 | Last updated 11-Aug-17
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The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself; for as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.

[L’âme qui n’a point de but établi, elle se perd: car comme on dit, c;est n’ètre en aucun lieu que d’être partout.]

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
Essays, Book 1, ch. 8 “Of Idleness” (1580-88) [tr. Frame (1943)]
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Alt. trans.: "The soul that has no established aim loses itself, for, as it is said, 'He who lives everywhere, lives nowhere.'" [tr. Cotton (1877)]

Alt. trans.: "When the soul is without a definite aim, she gets lost; for, as they say, if you are everywhere you are nowhere." [tr. Screech (1987)]

The proverb referenced is Martial.
Added on 14-Jul-17 | Last updated 14-Jul-17
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An aim in life is the only fortune worth the finding; and it is not to be found in foreign lands, but in the heart itself.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) Scottish essayist, novelist, poet
The Amateur Emigrant, ch. 4 “Steerage Types” (1895)
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Added on 30-Jun-17 | Last updated 30-Jun-17
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Let us be content to do little, if God sets us at little tasks. It is but pride and self-will which says, “Give me something huge to fight, — and I should enjoy that — but why make me sweep the dust?”

Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) English clergyman, historian, essayist, novelist (pseud. "Parson Lot")
Letter, “To a lady who consulted him about Sisterhoods” (24 Jul 1854)
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Added on 13-Jun-17 | Last updated 13-Jun-17
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It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) British novelist [pseud. Currer Bell]
Jane Eyre, ch. 12 [Jane] (1847)
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Added on 8-Jun-17 | Last updated 8-Jun-17
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There is a difference between tragedy and blind brutal calamity. Tragedy has meaning, and there is dignity in it. Tragedy stands with its shoulders stiff and proud. But there is no meaning, no dignity, no fulfillment, in the death of a child.

Walter M. Miller Jr. (1923-1996) American science fiction writer
“The Will” (1953)
Added on 6-Feb-17 | Last updated 6-Feb-17
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The chances of finding out what’s really going on in the universe are so remote, the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied.

Adams - keep yourself occupied- wist_info quote

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) English writer
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ch. 30 (1979)
Added on 29-Aug-16 | Last updated 29-Aug-16
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Art is not living. It is a use of living.

Lorde - art is not living - wist_info quote

Audre Lorde (1934-1992) American writer, feminist, civil rights activist
“My Words Will Be There”
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Added on 22-Feb-16 | Last updated 22-Feb-16
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The human soul, the world, the universe are laboring on to their magnificent consummation. We are not fashioned thus marvelously for nought.

Emerson - fashioned thus marvelously - wist_info quote

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (Dec 1820)
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This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects — education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects — military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden — that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
Mere Christianity, ch. 8 (1952)
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Added on 2-Dec-15 | Last updated 18-Apr-16
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I am sorry to hear of the little dog’s death. The animal creation is a strange mystery. We can make some attempt to understand human suffering: but the sufferings of animals from the beginning of the world till now (inflicted not only by us but by one another) — what is one to think? And again, how strange that God brings us into such intimate relations with creatures of whose real purpose and destiny we remain forever ignorant. We know to some degree what angels and men are for. But what is a flea for, or a wild dog?

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
Letter to Mary Willis Shelburne (26 Oct 1962)
Added on 11-Nov-15 | Last updated 11-Nov-15
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The whole fun of living is trying to make something better.

Charles F. Kettering (1876-1958) American inventor, engineer, researcher, businessman
(Attributed)
Added on 9-Oct-15 | Last updated 9-Oct-15
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If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001)
Added on 16-Sep-15 | Last updated 16-Sep-15
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A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds’ song and the frosty sunrise.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
Letter to Alan Griffiths (20 Dec 1946)
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Added on 5-Aug-15 | Last updated 5-Aug-15
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There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
A Hat Full of Sky (2004)
Added on 20-May-15 | Last updated 20-May-15
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I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) English writer
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Added on 23-Apr-15 | Last updated 23-Apr-15
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Consider and act with reference to the true ends of existence. This world is but the vestibule of an immortal life. Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity.

Edwin Hubbell Chapin (1814-1880) American clergyman
(Attributed)
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Quoted in Charles Northend, Memory Gems (1890).

Variant: "Every action of your life touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity." ["Advice to the Young," quoted in Charles W. Sanders, Sanders' Union Fourth Reader (1873)]
Added on 20-Apr-15 | Last updated 11-Sep-17
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The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to know how to live to purpose; all other things, to reign, to lay up treasure, to build, are, at most, but little appendices and props.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
“Of Experience,” Essays, Vol 3, ch. 13 [ed. Hazlitt, tr. Cotton]
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Added on 6-Apr-15 | Last updated 6-Apr-15
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He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has enjoyed the trust of good women, and the respect of intellectual men and the love of little children, who has filled his niche and accomplished his task, and who has left the world better than he found it whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul, who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it, who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had, whose life was an inspiration, and whose memory is a benediction.

Elisabeth-Anne "Bessie" Anderson Stanley (1879–1952) American poet
“Success” (1904)

The essay (though often presented in stanzas) was written for a poetry contest to answer the question "What is success?" in 100 words or less. It (especially the first 13 words) is often misattributed to Robert Louis Stevenson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Elbert Hubbard (the latter probably because the essay appeared in an advertisment in his series of books Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Lovers (e.g.). More information here.
Added on 27-Feb-15 | Last updated 27-Feb-15
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There is a destiny that makes us brothers:
None goes his way alone:
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back onto our own.

Edwin Markham (1852-1940) American poet
“A Creed To Mr. David Lubin”, st. 1, Lincoln & Other Poems (1901)
Added on 27-Feb-15 | Last updated 27-Feb-15
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BENDIS: We’re gonna die.
MAL: We’re not gonna die. We can’t die, Bendis. You know why? Because we are so — very — pretty. We are just too pretty for God to let us die.

Joss Whedon (b. 1964) American screenwriter, author, producer [Joseph Hill Whedon]
Firefly, 1×01 “Serenity” (pilot) (20 Dec 2002)
Added on 29-Jan-15 | Last updated 29-Jan-15
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Time is a jewel more worth than a world. Time is not yours to dispose of as you please; it is a glorious talent that men must be accountable for as well as any other talent.

Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) English Puritan divine, writer
The Hypocrite Detected, Anatomized (1650)
Added on 24-Dec-14 | Last updated 24-Dec-14
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The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for.

Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) American writer
Little Town on the Prairie (1941)
Added on 4-Dec-14 | Last updated 4-Dec-14
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Life is a biography, not a series of disconnected moments, more or less pleasurable but increasingly tedious and unsatisfying unless one imposes a purposive pattern upon them.

Theodore Dalrymple (b. 1949) English writer, journalist, psychiatrist [pen name for Anthony (A.M.) Daniels]
Life at the Bottom (2001)
Added on 2-Dec-14 | Last updated 2-Dec-14
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I am an agnostic partly because I don’t think it is part of the human condition ever to have very much certainty about anything but moments of pleasure and of imminent and immanent death. I don’t think we have a language, will ever have a language, that can describe transcendence in any useful way and am aware that transcendence may be nothing more than the illusory aspiration of a decaying piece of meat on a random rock. The thing is to be humble enough to be content with that while acting to other people as generously as if better things were true, and making art as if it might survive and do good in the world. Because what else are we going to do with the few short years of our life?

Roz Kaveney (b. 1949) British writer, critic, poet
“On Good Friday, I may not have faith, but that doesn’t make me an atheist,” The Guardian (29 Mar 2013)
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Added on 22-Oct-14 | Last updated 22-Oct-14
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The struggle which is not joyous is the wrong struggle. The joy of the struggle is not hedonism and hilarity, but the sense of purpose, achievement, and dignity.

Germaine Greer (b. 1939) English reformer, author, educator
The Female Eunuch, Introduction (1970)
Added on 2-Sep-14 | Last updated 2-Sep-14
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Those people you saw — the realborn — are born without a plan. They’re born because biology tells humans to make more humans; but it doesn’t consider what to do with them after that. Realborn go for years without the slightest clue what they’re going to do with themselves. From what I understand, some of them never actually figure it out. They just walk through life in a daze and then fall into their graves at the end of it. Sad. And inefficient.

John Scalzi (b. 1969) American writer
The Ghost Brigades, ch. 5 (2006)
Added on 26-Aug-14 | Last updated 26-Aug-14
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What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other….

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) English modernist writer [b. Adeline Virginia Stephen]
To the Lighthouse, Part 3, ch. 3 (1927)
Added on 16-Jun-14 | Last updated 16-Jun-14
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What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) British statesman and author
Speech, Dundee (10 Oct 1908)
Added on 26-May-14 | Last updated 25-Apr-17
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Writing is the only thing that passes the three tests of metier. first, when I’m doing it, I don’t feel that I should be doing something else; second, it produces a sense of accomplishment and, once in a while, pride; and third, it’s frightening.

Gloria Steinem (b. 1934) American feminist, journalist, activist
“What’s in It for Me?”, Harper’s (Nov 1965)
Added on 27-Mar-14 | Last updated 27-Mar-14
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Making money is easy, knowing what to do with it becomes a problem.

Ring Lardner (1885-1933) American sports columnist and writer [Ringgold Wilmer Lardner]
(Attributed)
Added on 14-Mar-14 | Last updated 14-Mar-14
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There is the world that should be and the world that is. We live in one and must create the other.

Jim Butcher (b. 1971) American author
Turn Coat (2009)
Added on 11-Mar-14 | Last updated 11-Mar-14
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What do you think God gave you more wealth than is requisite to satisfy your rational wants for, when you look around and see how many are in absolute need of that which you do not need? Can you not take the hint?

Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881) American novelist, poet, editor [pseud. Timothy Titcomb]
(Attributed)

Quoted in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895)
Added on 15-Jan-14 | Last updated 15-Jan-14
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There is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of a good cause.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
“The Negro Question,” Pageant (Jan 1946)
Added on 9-Dec-13 | Last updated 9-Dec-13
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Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune, or “broken heart,” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.

Gilman - quick and easy death - wist_info

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) American sociologist, writer, reformer, feminist
Suicide note (17 Aug 1935)
Added on 1-Feb-11 | Last updated 4-Dec-15
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If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Letter from a Region of My Mind,” The New Yorker (17 Nov 1962)

Republished as "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind" in The Fire Next Time (1963)
Added on 3-Sep-10 | Last updated 14-May-18
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One of the most interesting and harmful delusions to which men and nations can be subjected is that of imagining themselves special instruments of the Divine Will.

Russell - delusions divine will - wist_info quote

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) English mathematician and philosopher
“Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind,” Unpopular Essays (1950)
Added on 12-Aug-09 | Last updated 6-Jan-16
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Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [tr. Collins (1928)]

Alt. trans.: "The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress." [tr. Paul Auster (1983)]
Added on 9-Dec-08 | Last updated 24-Jan-17
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Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

Omar Khayyám (1048-1123) Persian poet, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer
Rubáiyát, 74 [tr. FitzGerald, 4th ed. (1879)]
Added on 19-Aug-07 | Last updated 31-Jul-17
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Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace!
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) Italian Franciscan mystic, reformer, saint [b. Giovanni di Pietro di Bunardone]
“Prayer of St Francis” (Attributed)

The poem (in French) appears to date back no further than 1912, and was first misattributed to St. Francis in 1927. The first English translation (as above) is in 1936. More information on its origin here and here. The original French (La Clochette magazine, #12 (Dec 1912):

Belle prière à faire pendant la Messe
Seigneur, faites de moi un instrument de votre paix.
Là où il y a l'offense, que je mette le pardon.
Là où il y a la discorde, que je mette l'union.
Là où il y a l'erreur, que je mette la vérité.
Là où il y a le doute, que je mette la foi.
Là où il y a le désespoir, que je mette l'espérance.
Là où il y a les ténèbres, que je mette votre lumière.
Là où il y a la tristesse, que je mette la joie.
Ô Maître, que je ne cherche pas tant à être consolé qu'à consoler, à être compris qu'à comprendre, à être aimé qu'à aimer, car c'est en donnant qu'on reçoit, c'est en s'oubliant qu'on trouve, c'est en pardonnant qu'on est pardonné, c'est en mourant qu'on ressuscite à l'éternelle vie.
Added on 29-Jun-04 | Last updated 5-Feb-14
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A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

John A. Shedd (contemp.) American writer
Salt from My Attic (1928)

    Variants:
  • "Ships in harbor are safe, but that is not what ships are built for."
  • "A ship in port is safe. But that’s not what ships were built for." (used by Grace Hopper)
  • "A ship is always safe at shore, but that is not what it is built for." (frequently misattributed to Albert Einstein)
More information on this quotation here. Sometimes (mis)attributed to William Greenough Thayer Shedd.
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 27-May-18
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It is not so much the suffering as the senselessness of it that is unendurable.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) German philosopher and poet
(Attributed)

Paraphrased by Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, 2.2.5 (1931) [tr. Duddington (1955)]
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 30-Dec-14
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The angels break into song at the sight of the throne and all the songs fit together as part of a greater song, but people seem to have to search to find the right song to sing. It is a matter of finding our proper nature.

Other Authors and Sources
Arn Lesikar, Belief-L listserv (6 Jun 1998)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 12-Apr-14
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Life may have no meaning. Or even worse, it may have a meaning of which I disapprove.

Ashleigh Brilliant (b. 1933) Anglo-American writer, epigramist, cartoonist
Pot-Shots #1347
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Happiness is not a reward — it is a consequence. Suffering is not a punishment — it is a result.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) American lawyer, agnostic, orator
“The Christian Religion,” Part 2, The North American Review (Nov 1881)
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