On Purpose, Passion, and Privilege

One of the things that resonates in Pope Francis’ new teaching document on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, is the understanding of holiness as a calling to be the very best version of yourself you can be, rather than trying to be a poor copy of someone else.

I was thinking over the last couple of days about passion and purpose. I posited a little while ago that there were four key elements to living well – health, security, connection and purpose. (I’ve since added a fifth, play. More on that some other day.) When I think about this sense of holiness-as-your-best-self, I think a lot about how that speaks directly to the importance of purpose.

Mind you, purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose; in fact, Francis spends a lot of time walking through how holiness shows up in the mundane everyday choices we make, underscoring the point that purpose can come from being a good spouse/parent/friend as much (and as valuably) as in some high-falutin’ role. But it does seem to me that there’s a line that runs through holiness, purpose, and what you’re passionate about, usually.

That last part, what we’re passionate about and it’s connection to purpose, is on my heart because of a couple stories of young people I’ve come across and how they illustrated how our messed up society hurts us, individually and collectively, by putting roadblocks between you and your passion and purpose that you just can’t get through. I should hasten to say that, particularly in our youth, our passions can change and evolve. As we experience more of the world, more opportunities, more of real life, we can realize that what we were passionate about as a kid no longer holds a charm. But we learn from those passions, and often there’s a mark that’s left by those stages that shapes our future. When I was young, I wanted to be a general manager for a baseball team (those are the ones who assemble the players) or a basketball coach. I was never either, but the moments of putting together a team or drawing up a strategy remain key elements of how I understand part of my purpose. And while my foray into working in sports was by most accounts a distraction or a failure, I wouldn’t trade for anything the fact that I had a chance to pursue those dreams until I put them to rest.

As a parent of a teenage daughter, I am learning a lot about musical theater. (I met my wife on the set of Pirates of Penzance, so it’s not totally foreign territory.) There are, apparently, many teenagers who are deeply passionate about musical theater; my daughter is one of them, and her theater group is her high school family. At this point, her goal is to go to college in Manhattan, break into Broadway, and be a part of the show. If she gets there, it won’t be because she is the most talented, nor the most experienced. It’ll be because she sticks it out and develops over the coming years, because by theater standards, she is a late bloomer. (But, as her dad, I will say, she’s got a shot.)

This week I watched her musical theater class do its final performances, and one of her best friends since she was 3 was also in the class. This kid, who never spoke above a whisper in preschool, turns out to have a rich, soulful voice that can move you to tears. And she loves musicals every bit as manically as my child. But when the time came to pick sophomore courses, and they each had to pick between AP Psychology and a theater elective, my kid went with the theater (with all full support; she gets plenty of psychology at the dinner table). The other kid went with the AP course, to better her chances of getting into a more prestigious college.

Our culture would say, that’s the smarter play. Better school = better job = better security. Still love theater? This improves your odds you can afford tickets. And I can’t blame anyone for making that choice; a few years ago I heard the compelling point that if you wanted to do good in the world, the best course of action is to become an investment banker, make gazillions of dollars, and invest it in social missions you want to affect. You’d have many times over the impact you could have as an underpaid staffer for one of those same non-profits. Makes sense.

But it seems to me that, maybe more than anything else, what we face as a society is a lack of purpose. Or, a lack of valuing purpose as a really important thing. As a means of bettering our collective lot. As a path to holiness.

Maybe this kid, my daughter’s friend, has a ceiling as a performer that’s much lower than I think. Maybe it’s irresponsible for her to hurt her chances of a scholarship just to be able to sing more. Maybe.

But maybe she has a voice that, with years of dedicated work, could move people to a better connection to the human experience. Maybe she could bring tears that change people’s minds and hearts with the songs she sings. And maybe, if that isn’t quite true, the pursuit of that passion might train her to follow her heart in ways that shape her as an executive or doctor or parent or friend. I wish our society factored that in before sending our brightest off to investment banker school.

The uncomfortable realization for me, here, is that the biggest difference between my daughter and her friend is privilege. For my wife and me, life has tended to work out well. We haven’t by any means sidestepped hardship or pain, but taken as a whole, it’s reasonable for us to expect that things will work out for us. And yes, that’s because we had great families who loved us and supported us.

But (I won’t speak for her) that also meant I didn’t have to focus on student debt; I worked in residence life through school, but the fact is, I was just chipping in. I got to pursue my interest in seminary without having to commit to the pastorate as a career. We didn’t have money for Dairy Queen cones in graduate school sometimes, but we didn’t have to worry about rent. If my experience had been different, I’d be much more focused on ensuring my daughter focused on a path that brought greater security than I had. That is an advantage of privilege above and beyond the fact that I didn’t ever think the police would stop me or question me because I was driving through an unusual neighborhood, walking on an unfamiliar street, or sitting in a diner or coffee shop. Had that been my reality…I would have focused more on security and less on purpose.

So what, you say? So I might have been a corporate lawyer instead of an amateur theologian, and that’s OK. And I wouldn’t have wasted all this time blogging and starting quixotic nonprofits and whatnot. We might all have been better off. Maybe pursuing your passion as a purpose is overrated, and you ought to just focus on maximizing your paycheck.

But.

I talked to another kid this week. He was working in a museum, one of those guys who isn’t quite security but is mostly there to make sure you don’t touch anything. When I asked him what his favorite piece was, he had a thoughtful answer. When I asked if he had an arts background, he said, no way. He was just working in museums to get through school and had picked up some things along the way. His passion was biology. Especially genetics. We started talking about gene editing and CRISPR, and he said, yeah, all that science fiction stuff is real now, and he wanted to be a part of it, because we aren’t focusing on the ethical questions of what should we do; only on the questions of what we can do.

He’s working his way through an AA at a good community college. He hopes to go on to a BS at a good state school. To the best of my knowledge, that state school has no real expertise in genetics or biomedical ethics.

This kid has to worry about student debt. This kid, also, not incidentally, would not get into the museums he works in without being closely followed because of how he looks. He is apparently not safe from being questioned at the local Starbucks or Waffle House just for being there. I have privileges over him, and the version of me that was his age did, too.

If you’re not convinced of the value of musical theater to a society, fine. But wouldn’t we be better off as a humanity if the people who were passionate about the ethical questions that attend to genetic editing had the freedom to pursue that passion, rather than standing around politely reminding you not to touch the sculpture? I would sleep better if guys like him had a free path to focus on those questions. And there is someone else who is passionate about those sculptures he’s there to keep me from touching. If we let him pursue his passion in the lab, and that other person pursue her passion in the museum, maybe we could all live more secure lives and make our individual paths to holiness as well. With moving music to nudge us on.

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