Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Puzzling over Howard Thurman's statement about what the world needs

During the retreat I attended last weekend, my friend Tammie read this quote from the late author and theologian Howard Thurman: “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.”

What an appealing notion, I thought at the time. It turns out I don’t need to be so preoccupied with what I should be doing to improve the world. I just need to do what makes me come alive…and the rest will fall into place. I’ll intrinsically be providing whatever it is that the world needs of me.

But as I continue thinking about it days later, I just can’t buy the idea that it’s really that easy. Am I really allowed to believe that going snowshoeing for two hours is what the world most needs from me? It’s true that that would make me feel invigorated, and cheerful, and as a result I’d probably be feeling productive and hands-on and ready to take on the world. But longer-term, after that rush of endorphins subsided?

Admittedly, maybe Thurman didn’t mean “come alive” quite so literally as I’m taking it. There are other ways to look at the concept of enlivening besides an endorphin rush. But even if I substitute other things that make me feel most full of a sense of vitality – mental and spiritual as well as physical – I’m not sure they are the things that most benefit the world: hiking with my children, gazing out at the ocean, listening to Tim explain how he deconstructed a math problem, overhearing Holly write a song, sitting quietly in church listening to the choir, standing outside my front door staring out over snow-covered fields on a winter evening.

It’s an issue that strikes close to home to me, because unfortunately, over the past year I’ve felt an increasing sense of disconnect between the things I agree to do because I think I should – because they are the deeds I think I owe the world – and the things I want to do.

Grateful as I am to live in a town with wonderful schools and a welcoming, inclusive church, both of which my family participates in fully, I occasionally feel slightly resentful of the volunteer roles I’ve agreed to fulfill at both places. I feel at times like we create work for ourselves by identifying a hole that needs to be filled before fully assessing whether there is really any long-term value to filling that hole. In other words: we operate by seeing that a need exists, and assuming that therefore it must be met, rather than by confirming the certainty that meeting that need will have long-term positive consequences. In my most frustrated moments, I’m reminded of what my kids do when they find a sheet of bubble wrap: methodically make it their function to pop every bubble, simply because the bubbles exist on the sheet and generate a satisfying little burst when you pop them, and not because any greater result than a sheet of deflated plastic bubbles will exist when they are done.

So I go along, organizing a Walk-to-School Day Event one day and making up cookie plates for the church fair the next, and neither necessarily makes me feel alive, though the walk itself will be rewarding and so will seeing friends and neighbors at the church fair.

And I’m just one small example. Other people I know are doing far more to make the world a better place: staffing food pantries, tutoring prison inmates. Would they say the duties make them come alive? And if so (and my guess is that my parents, who are prison volunteers, actually would say that), how is it possible that my going snowshoeing or meditating by the ocean carries just as much value to the world?

As usual, I don’t know the answer. It’s wonderful to think that Thurman is right, and that I am doing the right thing when I pursue what touches my soul rather than what seems to contribute to the greater good. It’s a very affirmative idea. But for now, I think I’ll try to keep doing both: the seemingly self-indulgent things that make me feel most alive and the altruistic things that seem to me like the right and necessary actions to help make the world a better place.

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