Tell us the telos

Telos is my new word of the week.  It is defined by as “The end of a goal-oriented process” or, in plain English, the point, the purpose, the reason for doing whatever you’re doing.

One of the themes of An Education (my movie of the moment!) is the attempt of the lead character, Jenny, to get the adults around her to explain the point of her expensive education.  None of them is successfully able to do it.  Her dad seems to think all her hard work and extra-curricular activities are to enable her to get into Oxford – so she can meet the ‘right’ sort of man to marry.

Her teachers try to persuade her to stay in school so that she can go to Oxford and become a teacher, so she can encourage other bright girls to go to Oxford and become teachers, so they can… and so on.

Eventually Jenny’s exasperation overcomes her good manners and she demands of her headmistress “It’s not enough to educate us any more, you’ve got to tell us what it’s for.”

A lot of the lack-lustreness of the current political scene appears to be because we’ve got so used to having things like education, health service, banks etc, etc, that we see them as ends in themselves, not as means to an end.  The party leaders are unable to suggest that they might spend less money on education next year, because in the public mind education is a given, inflation goes up, so you have to spend as much money if not more.  None of them seems willing to step back, look at Britain as a clean slate, and decide what needs to be done to create the ‘ends’ that we’re looking for.

One area in which this has been addressed from time to time is unemployment benefit.  It has been noticed that if someone is too lazy to work and you give him or her money each week with no questions asked, he or she will have little incentive to go out to work.  The Government has, to its credit, tried to look at the telos of unemployment benefit, with the goal of giving it to those people for whom it was intended (ie who are actively looking for work, and willing to take even a job for which they are over-qualified, if it is the only thing available).

Understanding the purpose of what you’re doing makes it far easier – in fact, I would suggest, makes it possible – to actually achieve your goals.

The conclusion in An Education, in the end, seemed to be that education is a more reliable way (than going to nightclubs with older men) of opening doors to the future for you. The fact that Jenny’s dad and teachers had such a limited vision of what doors could be opened was almost entirely the fault of the age they were living in – it was the very early sixties, when the opportunities for travel, for discovery and for jobs, especially for women, were still a few years away – and only partly to do with their lack of imagination and dreaming.

This could have been a ‘Leadership Wednesdays’ post, because it is a plea to leaders to tell us what goal they have in view when assigning tasks to us, but it’s also an encouragement to each one of us to consider our own purposes.

If the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever”, as the Westminster Catechism tells us, let us not forget to consider that as we gallop through our lives.  It’s easy to do things just because they’re there, and because they’re good in themselves, but do they serve our ends? What does our telos tell us?

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