That’s all it took for Alexander Graham Bell to be forever remembered as the inventor of the telephone. Two hours only, and a burning sense of urgency, that called upon Bell to fulfill his goal with conviction.
Alexander Bell might have well remained unknown. He may have never risen to history’s center stage. A contemporary of Bell, the American inventor Elisha Gray had, unbeknownst to Bell, simultaneously developed the telephone. In fact, they both registered their identical innovations at the U.S. Patent Office on Monday, February 14, 1876. Gray may have overslept on that fateful morning; he may have eaten an extra-long breakfast, or taken more time to read his daily paper. But Bell wasted no time. He was determined to act and beat Gray to the Patent Office by two hours. The rest, as we know, is history.
Pure Coincidence Or The Works Of A “Higher-Force”?
The chronicles of humankind are filled with similar events: Calculus was conceptualized in the 17th Century, by two separate scientists who had never met one another: Sir Isaac Newton from Great Britain and Gottfried W. Leibniz from Germany. At least nine unassociated innovators from several countries worldwide invented the telescopei. Chloroform was first produced in 1831 by three separate examiners in the United States, France and Germany. Sound film was invented by Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner of Poland in 1922 and by Lee De Forest of the United States in 1923, and they did not know of each other’s work. The vaccine for Polio was formulated in the 1950’s by three independent individuals, Hilary Koprowski, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. And most recently, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt for independently discovering that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
We are left to wonder: how can logic explain the simultaneity of major discoveries? Is it simply a “coincidence” that some of our world’s most important innovations were produced concurrently by individuals who did not know each other? Can there be a “higher-force” that guides our fate?
The Inevitability of Life
Perhaps, this wondrous phenomenon sheds light on the inevitability of life’s many tides and fluctuations. It seems as if once an idea is born or a concept is developed, nothing can stop it from coming to fruition. Mystics would explain that as soon as a “heavenly light is drawn into this world, it becomes easily available to all.” Whatever the reason, we ought to focus on its vital lesson: Life is about paying heed to that which life asks of us. It is about asking the question of “what we are needed for” over the question of “what we need.”
If it is true that things will happen anyway once “their ‘light’ is drawn down” — if history has established that discoveries will be revealed regardless of their driving force — then we ought to act upon the callings of life. Even when doubt or idleness pervades, we ought to act lest we forfeit our personal destinies.
When It Is Wrong to Remain Silent
In one of the Bible’s most revealing narratives, Mordechai implores Queen Esther to beseech the King Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people. His appeal penetrates the heart: “For if you remain silent at this time [and refuse to ask the king to annul the decree],” he warns her, “relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and the family of your father will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this? This was the approach of many great men and women. They shared a unique ability to hear the heed the needs of their time, and they answered the call without delay.
The famed psychotherapist and bestselling author, Alfred Frankl, once wrote so poignantly: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked… and to life he can only respond by being responsible.”iv Indeed, life is filled with moments that beg to be savored, chances that long to be realized, possibilities that crave to be actualized, and all that is asked of us is: Will we fulfill our responsibilities, or will we remain silent? Will we dare use our unique skills and talents to follow the callings of life? Will we muster the courage to act upon what we are needed for?
The Road to Purpose and Meaningful Achievements
This lesson holds especially true in our age where our personal desires often get in the way of our greater-than-self duties. Yet we ought to never become oblivious to all that which life has to offer. And we ought to remember that the blessings of life emerge precisely when we learn to synchronize what we want from life with what life wants from us. Herein lies the secret to a life of purpose and meaningful achievements.
Some twenty years ago, I sought the advice of my dear mentor, world-scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. After graduating high-school, I found myself at a crossroad, and I was doubtful as to which direction I should take. His down-to-earth advice was brief yet profound: “Our relationship with life is complex,” he remarked. “But as it is with all other relationships, the success of this relationship greatly depends on our ability to listen to life, at least as much as we expect life to listen to us.”
Let us develop our sense of hearing, and ensure to seize every opportunity that life offers, with unwavering resolve and determination.
Who knows? Perhaps history will then remember us kindly as well.