There's a certain slant of light

We all bring what Emily Dickinson called a 'certain slant' to life and to all that is within it— listen to these words from the poet:

There's a certain slant of light

On winter afternoons

That oppresses like the weight

Of cathedral tunes

I thought of these hard lines one day last year during an intriguing, and intense time spent in the hills of West Virginia with a successful entrepreneur whose aim is to use his fortune to promote spirituality. He had been born a Christian in India and converted as an adult to Hinduism. He was educated in India and England and went on to get a Harvard MBA. Over time he became head of the Middle East Practice for one of the big international accounting firms, ended up as an entrepreneur in the telecommunications business. At a certain point in his life, when his position, both in business and as a high ranking Hindu leader, was at a peak, he became increasingly depressed and disillusioned with his life. His marriage fell apart, and all the things he had been working for now seemed meaningless. He had come to feel that Hinduism, along with all organized religion was empty; he began exploring mystics, shamans, and the more esoteric forms of spirituality. He recovered from his personal crises, met and married an artist from rural West Virginia and moved there. His satellite business operations continued to prosper. When we met he was considering an offer to sell his business for in excess of $150 million.

We talked for hours about his dream of forming a spiritual community based on the little-known wisdom of the Elders from the region of the world called the Caucasus, especially Abkhasia — a place where his own ancestors had once lived. His notion was to make it more than a place of contemplation and reflection but to enable people to live and bring up their families. He wanted to use his entrepreneurial skills to build businesses that were compatible with the large tracts of conservation land he had assembled. He was passionate about wanting this new community to have a manifest destiny that would not be his vision but a vision created by the community as a whole. He had increasing respect for the values, strength, and character of the people, despite their poverty, who lived in these hills and he wanted to help them but not in the role of a charismatic leader, or a rich man playing the role of patron. He viewed his huge wealth as a tool and his own role as a servant and a steward. He felt that he had finally come to a place that was truly home — that this was his destiny.

In the late afternoon we went for a long walk around his property. After we had reached the crest of a steep hill with the sun setting, the beautiful rolling countryside around us, he suddenly turned to me and said, "You know we are all at heart, beggars. What we do all of our lives is beg for inner peace, for love and for salvation."

I was deeply moved by his dramatic plea. It seemed to me an expression of the essential loneliness of being. Educated, successful and wealthy though he might be, salvation—spiritual, experiential, or practical—remained elusive. It is not a surprise. So much of what we do in life with our families, our work, and our ongoing search for place and community is because we do not want to be lonely.

Salvation is a big word, inner peace and love are as well, but at least they are part of the here and now whereas salvation of one's soul lies in another realm. Perhaps all these words mean the same thing. My West Virginia friend may have a more exotic background than most, and a great deal more money that most, but he is not the first person, nor will he be the last, to dedicate his life and financial resources to a noble purpose. He is also not the first person to push back on 'the weight of cathedral tunes.' When I listen to other men and women speak of the powerful feelings that motivate them to give back in ways that are satisfying; I hear some common themes.

First among them, is the alignment of deeply held individual convictions or beliefs with a broader community, or social or public purpose. In the unusual story from West Virginia, the physical and spiritual journey of this man had finally found a home and he had found a purpose for his wealth in a place with great needs. The application of one's knowledge, and skills, and life experience to the specific task or project at hand is another common theme; no one I know wants it to only be about their money. Seriousness of purpose is also key; for those who have made it work, this is not a game. And lastly, there is an understanding that giving back is not about 'me' and that one needs to sublimate self-interest to the broader public objective of the 'good works' at hand.

When these elements come together, generosity takes on a new meaning, and philanthropy becomes more than a word.