The memoir of a French aristocrat might not seem like standard reading material for a teenage boy from the U.S. But this is the way fate deals with us — it hands us raw materials to see what we’ll build from them, tickles us with ideas of what could be.
Terre des hommes was the name of the book in question, which translates directly to “Land of men,” but is published in English as Wind, Sand, and Stars. Written by bestselling novelist Antoine de St-Exupéry, Terre des hommes speaks, in a nutshell, to the author’s idea of what is valuable in all of human experience.
This kind of topic, in the right hands (St-Exupéry wrote emphatically enough for his work to be banned in World War II-era France), can leave deep impressions on the minds of young people, and it certainly left one on mine.
One of St-Exupéry’s thoughts in particular struck such a deep chord, both viscerally and intellectually, that it has resonated in me for more than three decades. In fact, I was a pre-teen when the book fell open for me right at this quote:
“Il n’est qu’un luxe véritable, et c’est celui des relations humaines.”– Antoine de St-Exupéry
Word-for-word, the quote means “There is but one true luxury, and it is that of human relations”. I’ve debated this with French people, and the danger is to think that a luxury is something you can do without. Really then, the best word is “pleasure”.
So be it! “There is but one true pleasure, and it is that of human relations”, seems to work.
Was he right? For me, yes. So much so, that I kept this quote in my wallet for many years.
Life has many pleasures — eating, drinking, and being merry; learning, loving, and traveling. But even the items on this short list are hardly worthwhile when experienced alone.
The “true” pleasure in experiences comes from sharing them. Likewise for emotions, creations, and ideas.
When we enter a country, we’re sometimes asked if it’s for “business or pleasure,” reinforcing the idea that they are somehow mutually exclusive. But even business offers pleasure in the form of service and connection to other human beings — and to the extent that businesses fail to meet their potential, it’s often because they neglect the human element in one way or another.
Take even the most introverted, antisocial person, whose chief joy in life is some hobby that is undertaken in private; even there, the joy comes not from the hobby itself, but in the ways that it connects the hobbyist to others, whether by way of imitation, competition, homage, or even grief or mourning.
Truth is in experience, not words
What is “true pleasure?” Can we even honestly agree on what is “true” or “pleasurable?” Perhaps St-Exupéry could make those arguments more confidently than I can.
In other words, maybe you don’t see relationships as the ultimate source of pleasure, and I wouldn’t try to change your mind.
For me, though, remembering “Il n’est qu’un luxe véritable, et c’est celui des relations humaines” has helped infuse every aspect of my life with a helpful degree of ambition and perspective.
When I’m in a tough situation, I think of this quote. Of course I sometimes still fail to make the right decision. Constantly reminding myself of what is important, though, has consistently helped me know where I should focus my efforts.
I’m a better friend; a better family member; a better executive because of those words. And of course, without human relations, I could be none of those things in the first place. I think I’ll keep them in mind for the next 30 years, too.