[This is one more entry on the way to a book with the tentative title, When to Say Yes. Let me know what you think.]
“Why do musicians compose symphonies and poets write poems?” he once said.
“They do it because life wouldn’t have any meaning for them if they didn’t.
That’s why I draw cartoons. It’s my life.”
Our calling engages our passions. When we come to the path that makes sense for us, there is an inner Yes that resonates and energizes. Clearly this is not always easy—because often the path has difficulties—but, at the same time, it’s not toilsome because it’s the right path. And that rightness brings with it energy and creativity. There’s an inner drive that leads us to change the world for the better.
|A brain knowing the yes|
The well-known author and pastor, Frederick Buechner describes the right calling, hearing our yeses, as a beautiful duet of voices.
The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done…. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Buechner uses the term “work,” but I will replace this with “calling,” and calling arises at an amazing intersection of personal interest and external need.
With Buechner in mind, I’m going to change this slightly and phrase it more succinctly:
Our yes is where passion meets mission.
It’s where what we want most to do coincides with what God wants done in the world. It’s that itch we have to scratch. What we “need most to do” in Buechner’s definition reminds us that there is something (or perhaps a few things) that we “most need to do,” that has in it an inner “yes.”
But how do we know what we really care about? What does the experience of finding your passion feel like?
This brings me to a psychologist with a remarkable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For what it’s worth, I once heard someone comment (though I can’t verify this) that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high.” In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi presented a key idea for grasping how we find our passion. In the state of the mind he named “flow,” we experience deep enjoyment, challenge matched by our skills, creativity, and sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience” be described? He writes that “‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” One key example for Csikszentmihalyi is the work of a surgeon, who works within certain limits (defined by keeping the patient alive), for a specific goal (the improved health of the patient), with a task that's entirely demanding and rewarding. Although paradigmatic, flow doesn't just happen for surgeons. It's actually a reasonably universal experience. But how did he find this out? He developed a new form of research, the Experience Sampling Method, in which hundreds of subjects wore pagers that beeped at odd intervals throughout their days. When paged, the participants had to quickly fill out a brief survey that noted what activity they were engaged in and a series of questions of whether they were more or less in the “flow.” Were they in “optimal experience”?
Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates some surprising results: for example, human beings more often experience flow when they are working than when they are at leisure.” Although television requires mental processing, very little else mentally, like memory, is engaged. “Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television.” Ultimately, he asserts, optimal experience makes life worth living. When we’re in the flow, we want to do nothing else. And we don’t really care about much else. “An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.”
Doesn’t this first side, “finding your passion,” and looking for "flow" seem just a little too selfish and therefore illegitimate as a way of directing our lives? Not necessarily. I have learned from a distinction the Christian writer and Oxford literary scholar, C.S. Lewis. He delineated an important distinction: between being selfish and self-centered. Finding what we are called to do is, in a certain sense, selfish—we love doing it and therefore we find great joy—but entirely not self-centered—when we do what we love, we forget ourselves as we delight in the activity itself. Lewis writes,
One of the happiest men and most pleasant companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts.
So, in a way, I’m asking us to be more directed toward what we like because there we have the power to become self-forgetful and even other-directed. Here I’m proposing a form of enlightened selfishness. With enlightened selfishness—or better, just doing what we enjoy doing, where we find “flow”—we actually forget ourselves. We simply cannot be self-centered.
The point is not, as we often fear, that when we like to do something it will make us less moral. Actually what we truly love helps us to turn our eyes off ourselves and toward the activity, which is the beginning of right actions. In other words, don’t stay selfish as an end, but learn to follow what you truly enjoy and follow it toward something outside of us. And that leads to mission….
One other suggestion here—often, as weird as this seems, it’s hard to know what we really desire. “I don’t really know what I want”. But I believe the God who created us can help us find what we truly desire. One of the most cited passages in the psalms reads like this: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4, NRSV). Some construe this verse to mean that God will give us the things we desire—a new BMW, a vacation in Tahiti. That sounds nice, but if you look at the context of the psalm, it’s all about doing what’s right and following God’s way.
So here’s the bottom line: As we seek God, we actually find what we desire.
When we look at God, we see a new set of priorities, a new vision of caring for others. And so, on the (b) side of the Buechner quote, what “the world needs to have done”—our environment, those outside of us—cannot be silenced. The list here is immediately evident: providing education, caring for health, creating beauty in the arts and culture. So it’s not just what we want to do—our passion has to meet some need. Here we move away from the siren voice of our culture that prizes individual self-expression above all else. Here’s the control on our selfishness. It is not centered on what benefits us first, but on what is of greater need in the world.
So the first step of call—or our big Yes—is to listen: to obtain some sense of what direction that resonates deep in us and out in the world.
Does this happen at once? Not for most people. Hearing the call is gradual and that each insight builds on the previous one. I’ve often thought this looks something like a website coming gradually into view. It doesn’t happen all at once, and even at first, it’s not clear what’s emerging. But at some point, it begins to make sense.I’ll have more to say on mission in the following post.