1. Ask what makes youcome alive
Does starting with yourself sound selfish to you? If so you are most likely concerned with serving the world. That is certainly a worthwhile goal, and a most important one. But do you have the right approach? Howard Thurman, an outstanding civil rights activist, author of Jesus and the Disinherited, and a mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave this advice: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
So what is it that makes you come alive? Whatever your answer it will point toward that way of serving the world for which you are best suited. When you do that, you express your unique personality—with all your talents and all your limitations and shortcomings and your struggle to overcome them—which makes you who you are, and this uniqueness is what the world needs.
Maybe you have heard about Helen Keller or have seen the film about her, The Miracle Worker. Keller was born with a brilliant mind, but when she was not yet 2 she lost forever both her eyesight and hearing. In spite of that, and with the help of her gifted and dedicated teacher Anne Sullivan, she learned to speak and write. She also became the first blind and deaf student to earn a bachelor of arts degree, got married, and distinguished herself as a social activist, lecturer, and writer.
There were even great saints—John Vianney for example—who struggled with school and found it extremely hard to study. They may have failed their exams but they didn’t give up, and in the end they changed the world by their love and courageous service.
Examples of this kind can help you see that even your challenges and the way you deal with them are part of coming alive and thus serving the world. Yet, examples are given us for inspiration, not for imitation. There is a Jewish story about a rabbi who wanted to imitate Abraham, the father of faith. “Make me like Abraham,” he prayed, “make me like Abraham!” But God said to him—so the story says—“Look, I have already an Abraham. I want you.” Anyone you admire has already played her or his part; now it is up to you to play your own.
When you think of coming alive and playing your part, the image of a jazz band may help you see it is not selfish at all. How the members of a band play will depend not only on their skill as musicians but on how well they listen to each other. That is where we come to the third question that people who found their true vocation had asked themselves. After they wondered, “What would I really like to do?” and “What am I good at?” they listened to all the other players and asked, “What opportunity is life offering me—right now?”
2. Trust the opportunities life and God are offering
Once you know what gives your heart deep and lasting joy, go for it! Trust life to provide every moment with exactly what you need (this courageous trust is called faith). If you truly trust in life, you can let go of your wishful daydreams and open yourself to reality with all its surprises (this openness for surprise is called hope). Going forward with trust and openness is like shouting a joyful “yes!” into the strong wind of life that meets you. Suddenly you realize: We all belong together. Life is a network of mutual belonging (and your “yes” to belonging is called love).
“Listen with the ears of your heart. To what does life invite you, right now? Sometimes life invites you to learn something.”
We sometimes get that wrong; we think that faith means believing something. But that is belief. Faith is courageous trust in life—trust in that mysterious source of life and aliveness that is called “God.” And often we confuse hopewith our hopes. But our hopes are for things and events we imagine; hope is openness for the unimaginable, for surprise; in fact surprise is a good name for God because it doesn’t box God in. Love, too, is often misunderstood; we tend to confuse it with preference. But what makes love to be love is not preference but the sense of mutual belonging. And because everything in the universe belongs inseparably together with everything else, love in the full sense is your “yes” to limitless belonging—a “yes” that is expressed not by words but by the way we live.
To live in faith and hope and love means finding your true vocation. It means to experience life with trust and openness and an all-embracing “yes” and so to come alive with the divine life within you. In the biblical story of creation we are given a beautiful image: As human beings we come alive when God breathes life into us. To use an image closer to us, we are like so many different soap bubbles, all filled with one and the same divine life-breath. To remind myself of that I like to blow soap bubbles on my birthday every year. If you remember that truth, you look differently at others—and not only at others; you look differently at yourself and at your relationship to that source, fullness, and dynamism of life that we call God. Then you understand why Saint Paul said: “In him we live and move and have our being”(Acts 17:28).
Is there a simple method to put all this into practice? There is. But remember, simple doesn’t mean easy; you’ll have to give it all you have. The method has three parts: Stop, listen, respond.
Stop, or you will zoom right past the opportunity life is offering you this very moment. Unless you learn to stop, you are driving on automatic. You need to build stop signs into your daily life. Before you open your eyes in the morning, before you put the key into the ignition, before you open your computer, these beginnings invite you to stop for a split second. So do moments when something makes you stop—a traffic light, a line at the checkout counter, or someone arriving late. Endings, too, make good stopping points: As you get up from table, close your book, or turn off the light, stop ever so briefly. By stopping, you practice faith: You trust that life, and the Giver of Life, has a message for you, an invitation.
And then you listen—with the ears of your heart. To what does life invite you, right now? Most of the time life invites you to enjoy—what you see, taste, smell, touch, or hear. Stopping and listening makes you come alive with all your senses. Otherwise you miss these pleasures by rushing past them. But sometimes life invites you to learn something—for instance patience (that’s not so pleasant)—or to move beyond what you are used to (that can also be challenging). At other times life may invite you to share—your time, your experience, your resources—or to stand up and be counted or to clean up a mess. Whatever it might be it will always be surprising if you only listen deeply enough. For this kind of listening is an exercise in hope. It makes you more and more open for surprise.
The greatest surprise will be to discover how by stopping and listening you come to interact lovingly with others if you practice the next step and respond to life’s invitation at a given moment. That response is an exercise in love, your lived “yes!” to belonging. It is your answer to a very personal calling, and it turns whatever you are doing into a vocation, your unique vocation—for no other person can listen and respond with your heart. The joy you will find on this path, no matter how rough it may be at times, will prove to you that it is the right path for you. Then you will realize what it means when Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
(This article appears on VISION Magazine)