Wherever We Are Useful

Katharina Mommsen, Goethe’s Art of Living
Trafford, 2003
Translators: John Crosetto, John Whaley, Renee M. Schell

A teacher who can awaken a sense of a single good deed or a single good poem accomplishes more than one who simply coveys an entire catalog of natural phenomena categorized by form and name.  
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,  143 

Drawing extensively on her grasp of Goethe’s vast oeuvre, Katharina Mommsen fills her book with many passages from Goethe’s works and offers some helpful commentary. The book has the following sections:  Facing the World, Nature, Joy of Being Active, Art of Life and Living, Fundamental Joys of Life, Enthusiasm for the Young, and Reflections.


While reading her book, I thought several times of Sri  Eknath Easwaran, whose neo-Hinduism dovetails at times with Goethe’s strongly secular orientation, particularly about relations with the young and concentrated work and productivity— 

“Day and night is not an empty phrase; many nighttime hours, which I spend sleeplessly as befits the fate of my age, are dedicated not to vague and general thoughts, but to precise contemplation of what to do the following day, which in the morning I dutifully begin as far as possible to carry out. And so I perhaps do more and cleverly  accomplish in the allotted days, what once was wasted time in which one justifiably thought or imagined that there was always another tomorrow.”


Mommsen highlights Goethe’s conviction that  “activity [is] the best remedy for dissatisfaction, melancholy, the torments of yearning, frustration, and ‘Weltschmerz’” —

“It is activity which makes men happy.” 25

“The real man’s true celebration is the deed!” 26

Through Patricia Madsen Ryan’s  Improv Wisdom, I learned about Constructive Living, David Reynold’s synthesis of Japanese wisdom practices. Rather than get emotionally fixated on something, CL  suggests to open our eyes and see what needs to be done; Goethe would agree—

“Between today and tomorrow/There lies a long time./Learn to finish your tasks/Whilst you’re still bright and cheerful.” 23 

“It is better to do the littlest thing in the world than to consider half an hour to be too little time.”  25

“Wherever we are useful/Is the most valuable place.” 27

“Our rallying cry is: try to be useful everywhere and you are at home everywhere.” 28


Thich Nhat Hanh has often suggested that we maintain our “sovereignty”  through the practice of mindfulness. In his “Dharma Song,” Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche concurs:  “Lack of mindfulness will allow the negative forces to overcome you. Without mindfulness you will be swept away by laziness.”  Goethe, too, is a champion of “present moment, only moment”—

“We only live once in the world, we only once have these resources, these prospects, and whoever does not put them to the best use, whoever does not exploit them as far as possible, is a fool.” 20

“Always hold fast to the present. Every situation, indeed every moment, is of infinite value for it represents a whole eternity.” 21

“The present is the only goddess I worship.” 21 

“Use your time honestly,/If you want to grasp something don’t look far for it.” 23

“Let no hour steal by in vain,/Make use of whatever has happened to you./Vexation is also part of life.” 24


I named a course I am presently facilitating on the work and life of Diane di Prima, “Making the World Bearable,” which comes from this passage in her memoir:  “What I saw then was this fairly obvious faculty of art: that it goes on, it lasts a bit longer that our frail human lives—it offers comfort. The vision is more enduring than our persons—it uplifts us past the vicissitudes of time, uplifts till it, too, is done or forgotten: ten years, five hundred years. It is the working of our loving hearts, burrowing out of us into the light of day. Like Bodhisattvas we bring this liberation, this space to each other when we are simply ambitious: working for fame, as Keats once thought he was doing. Working for money or glory. What we are left  with is finally what we leave: this reaching out to touch, to comfort others. To make the world bearable, possible at all.”  Goethe, on the poetic vocation—

“The task of a poet: to support people in distress, to advise and help them, to comfort them in unavoidable suffering, to make them more content with their lot, and encourage them to better withstand the battle of life.” 12


In his book, Genius,  Harold Bloom  states  that his work is “to help us prepare for this new century, by summoning up aspects of the personality and achievements  of many of the most creative who have come before us.”    Mommsen’s short book makes the case for Goethe’s stimulating relevance —

“What [Goethe] was and what he accomplished, arose from the same creative impulses—his living deeds as well as the works he left. The same constructive creativity expressed in all his poems and writings is present in Goethe’s actions, experiences, and convictions.” 13 

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