Category Archives: Better Life

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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The Four Essential Elements of Successful Living

Last year, I was asked by a group to come talk about healthy living. (Obviously, they did this sight unseen.) As I tried to gin up a talk about this, I stumbled back upon a favorite framework, the Power 9 pulled by Dan Buettner and his colleagues from the Blue Zones study. It worked well with the group, even though the Blue Zones are identified as places where people are significantly more likely to live to 100, and the group were 20-somethings. That underscored for me that they are pretty universal.

But something told me they were more and less than they needed to be. So I tried to boil them down, and I ended up with four essential elements of successful living: Health, Security, Connection, and Purpose.

Blue Zones has a rap for just focusing on health, but as I read it, the study actually goes 3-for-4, especially as it’s implemented in the US as a designation for communities that aspire to be great places. Yes, the focus is on physical health: diet (plant slant, hari hachi bu, wine at 5), exercise (move naturally), rest (sorta – they actually could do more about this, but “down shift” makes the cut). But they also get connection (right tribe, belong, family first). And purpose is its own one of the 9. So it misses on security.

But let me flesh out what I’m using for my four, because I’ve added a little around the edges:

  • Health
    • Nutrition (plant slant, hari hachi bu, hydration)
    • Exercise (cardio, strength, flexibility)
    • Rest (sleep, play, reflection/meditation/prayer/worship)
  • Security
    • Physical (from the elements, from violence)
    • Emotional (protection from harmful levels of anxiety about present or future conditions)
  • Connection
    • Close friends and circles of mutual care
    • Casual connections – face-to-face daily interactions
  • Purpose
    • Meaningful work (paid or informal)
    • Legacy (contributing to a better future)

These are the things, I will posit, that we all need to thrive. We don’t need them all, all the time – anyone who has pulled an all-nighter to get an important project finished or to spend time with someone beloved can attest to that – but over the long run, we need all of these to be present at some level for us to live well.

And here in the US, our systems and our culture our failing us because they make these elements unduly difficult to achieve for most people. The nature of work is such that it too seldom diminishes help, provides insufficient emotional (and sometimes physical) security, hurts some of our most important connections, and does not feed a sense of purpose. That’s not true for everyone, of course. But it seems to be true for a growing number of people.

So, what to do? Change comes at the legal, systemic and cultural levels. Changing laws is hard, but is simple when compared to the others. Unwinding systems of, say, racism or classism, takes not only changing laws but changing economic incentives. Changing culture – what we as a collective body of people value – is even more complicated and difficult.

We get caught up in changing laws. That’s probably because it’s a competitive battle of interests that is easy to understand in the context of our tribal nature and our modern competitiveness. Laws change when “we” triumph over “them” (or vice versatile). But when we change laws, we really have only begun, and if we don’t recognize that, we are doomed to fight an eternal war over whatever issue it is we’ve picked. To bring true change, we need to replace the systems that made the laws we changed make sense, and we need to change the cultural values that celebrated the outcomes of that unjust system based on those unjust laws. Even beyond the changing of laws, those changes require the changing of hearts, which is almost always slow work.

If what we have in American society is not bringing most people what they need to thrive, what arrangement can do better? I don’t think “What the hell do you have to lose?” is a compelling argument. We need to find a better place to go before we decide to leave where we are.

I don’t have a certain answer, but I want to flesh out a hypothesis. I’m going to work from an assumption that may or may not be right; if it’s wrong, perhaps that discovery can point us to something better. My hypothesis will be that two principles, well applied, can get us to a better outcome. One is solidarity. The other is subsidiarity.

By solidarity, I mean the essential recognition that we all are worthy of dignity and we all belong to each other. Those of us who are advantaged in each moment are called to recognize this true equality of dignity and value in those who are disadvantaged in this and every moment.

By subsidiarity, I mean the theory that the decisions that communicate the most dignity are the most personal ones, those that are made closest to the subject. This goes beyond what Americans know as federalism (the idea that government is better at the state level than the federal one) and even beyond government alone to apply to all institutions. All things considered, the smaller, the better. The family should provide what it can provide. Local institutions – neighbors, communities of membership, local collectives, should support the family. Local governments should support those local institutions. And so on.

I’m going to work on this hypothesis for a while and see where it takes us. Specifically, let’s see if it can deliver a better model for empowering health, security, connection and purpose than what we have today.