Have you ever sat down and asked yourself why you do what you do? Why you sell what you sell and the reason you get up every day to do the same thing? Sometimes the “why” can get lost in the chaos of everyday life. It is the “why” that is behind every great idea, innovation, and discovery. Without a meaningful “why,” you’re just busy. And for some, that is good enough, but for others, there is a deeper motivation that may stem from a desire to change the world in ways no one has ever thought about.  

I read a short story of Samuel Finley Breese Morse from a gentleman named Nate Dimeo. Nate produces a podcast called “The Memory Palace,” which tells a story in history through the lens of humanity, not a textbook. When I read this story, it brings the question of “why” into a new and moving perspective. You can listen live to his stories at http://thememorypalace.us/

Samuel Finley Breese Morse spent the first 35 years of his life learning to paint, at Andover, at Yale, in London at the Royal Academy. He studied the works of the Masters, to learn how Michelangelo built bodies that seemed to pulse and shudder out of mere oil and shadow and crosshatch. To learn how Raphael summoned the spark of inner life with a single stroke of pure white in the dusky ocher of a noblewoman’s eye. To learn how to create illusions of space and distance. To learn how to conjure the ineffable through the mere aggregation of lines and dots and stretch canvas. He learned how to paint. And in 1825, Morse was living in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife Lucretia and two young sons, and a third child was on the way, due any day. One night, a courier delivered a message. The city of New York wanted to pay Morse a thousand dollars to paint a portrait of the Marquis De Lafayette. The hero of the Revolution was coming to Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of the war, and he would sit for Morse if the painter could leave right away. So he packed his easel and his brushes and his paints and clothes that we’re good enough to wear when meeting a man like Lafayette. And he kissed his pregnant wife and he left that night.

 On another night a week later, Morse was in his rented studio in Washington, preparing for the arrival the next morning of his distinguished subject. He heard a knock on the door and there was a courier, breathless and dirty from a hard ride on a hard road, handing him a note that was five words long: your dear wife is convalescent. He left that night. He rode for six days straight on horseback and in the backs of juttering wagons, wrapped in blankets against the cold wind of October nights. And when he made it to New Haven and ran through fallen leaves up to the house on Whitney Avenue, he learned that his wife was dead. In fact, she had died before the courier had knocked on his door in Washington. In fact, she had already been buried some morning while he was on the road, while he was racing home to be by her side and sit with her while she got better.

 Samuel Finley Breese Morse spent the next 45 years of his life trying to make sure no one would have to feel the way he felt that night ever again. Samuel Finley Breese Morse spent the next 45 years inventing the telegraph. To turn real space and real distance into illusion in developing Morse code. Dots and lines that could transmit the stuff of real lives and of dying wives.

Do you know your “why?”