Tag Archives: joy

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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Made for Joy

We were made for joy.

If you watch children at all, you know that. Laughter, skipping, a silly verve for life are such a part of childhood that even in war-torn countries and refugee camps you can find children playing.

Of course, we drive it out of them as soon as we can. In school, joy can be disruptive, so we wall it off to the courtyard of play-time, which gets curtailed as soon as we can fill their days of scheduled after-school activities and homework, where coaches and teachers further underscore that the point is to get serious and settle down.

We do this, basically, to get people ready for adulthood, where joy is not really a public phenomenon. In the last week, I surreptitiously polled two groups – one in person, and one on Facebook – about what gives them joy. Family (including furry family and families of choice), hobbies, and nature were almost all of the responses. A few people (less than 5) talked about the impact of their (usually volunteer) work. Again, joy is a private, rather than a public phenomenon. But everyone who responded should count themselves lucky – at least they had an answer top of mind.

In the last couple of years we have begun talking about “flow”, which is sort of like joy, except you can’t smile and it has to be in service to your employer.

All of this is wrong.

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I’ll posit a definition for joy, which is one of those things that can be tough to define but you know when you see it. But let’s try this: Joy is the feeling you get when you are doing what you feel like you were meant to do, with the people you were meant to do it, in the place you were meant to be. Joy is the feeling of the soul at play. Joy is both in the journey and the destination; there is a satisfaction from accomplishment that sparks joy, but there is a joy in the process in knowing you are doing your part to its fullest to get there. Joy is infectious, as is its opposite, which I’ll label malaise. And you can choose to be open to joy; you can do the same thing with or without joy (and people can tell the difference from 50 feet away).

As I just defined it, you might think that joy needs to be reserved for something important. I think that misunderstands what I mean by “what we are meant for.” In his many books and talks, Matthew Kelly talks often about “becoming the best possible version of yourself.” That happens at a lot of different levels of what we would usually think of as “important” and acknowledges that we each have different roles to play in different arenas of our lives. Kids are meant to play. So are adults – not just at home or at the beach but everywhere.

The one thing I remember about the movie Chariots of Fire besides the slow-motion running to music was a quote by the British pastor and Olympic runner Eric Liddell. When he was asked how someone with such a serious, important role could spend his time on something as trivial as running, his response was “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” While God did not make me fast, there are times when I swim that I feel God’s pleasure. That’s what joy is.

I have seen joy in unlikely people and places. Not long ago, when the city pool where I swim was undergoing renovation of its locker rooms, the city had port-a-potties installed, and I remember several mornings leaving the pool as the guy whose job it was to service the port-a-potties was about his work. And he was joyous, in how he greeted people and how he acted. Cleaning port-a-potties before dawn. One of the people who runs the front desk at that pool is far happier than anyone should be expected to be at that early hour, anywhere, much less working a front desk. “Peace and love,” she shouts with a smile to you as you leave. They choose the joy they were made for.

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About 20 years ago, I was working at a small university in Mississippi as the sports information director and de facto public affairs officer for the school. One of the things I did was send a weekly email to everyone on campus about what sporting events were coming up. I remember one time, after seeing the school’s theater group put on a show, I put this reflection into my weekly e-mail (paraphrased; my record-keeping is worse than my memory):

There are lots of reasons to go to a sporting event or to a live musical performance, and there are lots of reasons not to. Go to one this week though, for this reason. What I saw at the show last week that grabbed my attention more than the songs themselves was the look on the faces of the performers. They said, not with their words but with the way they performed, that they had done everything they could to prepare for their role, they knew they had the talent to do it well, and they knew they were on the top of their game.

I recognized that look, because I see it in our athletes in the midst of competitioon.That look of joy is one you only really see in theater and sports. But it does us good to get to witness it. Maybe it will rub off, even.

One of the things that makes The Greatest Showman attractive is the joy with which the performers deliver it. The songs certainly have the energy to set them up for that, and the storyline is joyful even despite the challenges characters face. Since the actors are playing performers, they have not only the freedom but the mandate to depict the joy of performing as an expression of the best possible versions of themselves.

Making movies is, I bet, pretty soul-sucking, tedious work. I spent an entire 8-hour day once filming a 30-second commercial, and I was ready to crawl into a hole at the end of that day. But there are a couple of videos released by 20th Century Fox in promotion of the movie that show the joy-behind-the-joy.

Look at this one. Focus on the guy who stands up to sing the second verse, just as an example.

Do something that makes you feel like it looks like that guy feels.

Here’s another great one. I like the woman who looks like she’s standing on a table belting it out, but when Benj Pasek high-fives Hugh Jackman, you see the joy of someone who knows he’s birthed a project that’s going to get green-lit.

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What faith brings to this discussion is this: We make the claim that the highest joy you can feel, the best-possible-best-possible-version-of-yourself, is in fulfilling the role God has in mind for you to love Him and the people he puts in your path as much as you possibly can, and use what gifts you’ve been given to their fullest. What we say we believe is that there are lots of other ways to be joyful, and they are wonderful, but they exist to give us a hint of a more perfect joy that comes from soaking in the love of the divine Lover.

We say that we believe that. It’s pretty rare that we live that way, though. Instead, we spend a lot of time talking down the lesser joys, pooh-poohing and tsk-tsking silliness rather than offering an even more joyful presence to the world.

It would be great, instead, if we worked on choosing the joy before us and striving for the joy we were made for.

Passions, Habits, and the Life in Between

Take this as a giant maybe, a question to test, a hypothesis.  In reflection tonight a few things struck me that, together, seem to encompass a lot of life.

The first point was about passions. I was observing how someone close to me is driven by a passion, an inward drive to consume something past or connect with something present or create something to come, and I reflected on how, when I was younger, my passions were targeted toward silly stuff. Not bad things, but, I mean, I did a mock draft of all seven rounds of the NFL draft in order to create in my mind who might be the original Jacksonville Jaguars. I drew up lineup options for Wake Forest’s basketball team after each class of recruits. I developed the minor league depth chart for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on lined notebook paper. I didn’t just play fantasy sports; I fantasized about running real sports teams. It was very much a passion.

There’s nothing particularly wayward about that. I think the skills I developed around planning scenarios and analyzing trends and data and looking ahead have translated into skills I use today in my vocation and work. Granted, there’s probably something worth a psychoanalyst’s time in the fact that I have a proclivity to fixate on worse-than-mediocre teams (sort of a “Bedford Falls Complex”), but otherwise that passion for sports wasn’t bad per se. Nor all that unusual.

I suspect that these sorts of passions are intended to help develop the young. The world is a lot to wrap your mind around, and developing competence requires making a lot of mistakes that, in real life with hearts and souls of others at stake, are painful if not disastrous. Having “pretend passions” like sports of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones to focus on allows the young to get some reps in for real life things, while focusing on arenas that aren’t ultimately important or often even real. I needed to learn how to think, how to learn, how to lead, and those harmless passions were a playground to develop some of those skills.

It wasn’t that I “grew out of them.” I see their limits now, yes, in ways I didn’t when I was younger and had less worldly experience. I still love the Rays, Deacons, Jaguars, to a degree, but they get less of my time and attention because they are less central to my soul. But I didn’t so much abandon them as displace them in the center of my life with more important things. I have real work to do that requires that part of myself. My marriage and family and community and other key relationships claim the center of me. So as Paul talks about putting aside childish things in (I Corinthians 13:11-12), so those passions of before have become memories, diversions for which I have less time but enduring fondness. (#Duuuuuuvvaaaaaalll) By and large, I have not rejected those passions of my younger days so much as replaced them with real reasons to be passionate.

In an odd way, the best analogy I can draw on is about pain. When I was less experienced, little things hurt a LOT. When I had my blood test to apply for a marriage certificate, I almost blacked out. (In my defense, the phlebotomist wasn’t having a great day.) But a few years later, when pancreatitis almost killed me, it gave me a different spectrum of pain. That stuff I thought really hurt before? I understood why I thought it was bad at the time, but now, in the light of experience? NBD.

And, to my shame, I find myself judging those who remain obsessed with the stuff I left behind. Have they nothing more important to occupy their center? Are they escaping some reality that is more drab than it should be? Did they never grow up, or are they just running away from the hard parts of reality?

That’s not the most charitable approach. But I wonder if one of the failures of our times is the inability of our society to help everyone recognize the very real, very important potential objects of passion in their lives, or the failure to develop the maturity to help us recognize that true life is found not in a constant escape to fantasy worlds but in the digging into the passionate things around us that sweat and bleed, or the structural barriers that prevent too many from connecting the ways they spend their time with objects worthy of their passions.

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Beyond passions, though, I am painfully aware that a lot of my life is driven not by anything that I’m passionate about, but by things I am just not attending to. A whole lot of my daily existence is driven by habits – habits are the life I live when I’m not paying attention. Too often, what I eat, what I do (or don’t do), how I talk, what I read, what I listen to, are all unconscious non-choices. They are habits. They are default modes of operation. And while some of them are positive, and some are neutral, a lot of them are negative.

If replacing passions is an exercise in awareness, changing habits is a frustrating realization of the power of UNawareness. How do I weed out the habits I only notice ex post facto? How do I quit wasting time that could have gone toward something worthwhile – a passion, or at least a wise choice (like, say, sleep)? When April and I were relatively newly married, we watched a lot of prime time TV. That was a habit, and while it left us with a shorthand vernacular of quotes from Friends, I often look back with regret on the hours we spent focused on Chandler and Joey instead of each other, or something else enduring. Parenthood weeded that out of our lives, for which I am grateful, but I’d love to claim more agency in shaping my life than the power of habits reveals.

And, that said, I recognize my good fortune. My regrettable habits eat time and add calories, but they aren’t horribly destructive. My sense, from the folks I know who have struggled with deep addiction, is that addiction isn’t a passion so much as a habit that has a venomous hold. As someone with a little OCD can be thrown in a tizzy by a disruption of the way things should go, so the addict is thrown by the lack of the substance of addiction. Unlike passion, which points us toward a better place, addiction is a habit that traps us beneath a baseline of meh-existence. I am fortunate that my habits are not so destructively powerful.

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But there’s a lot of life that isn’t fully intentional pursuit of passion or sleepwalking habit. What is that, exactly?

I started to call it consciousness, or mindfulness. Or the present. But those are all about the opportunity in-the-moment to choose between passion and habit. That’s really valuable, but there’s a dimension of life that exists beyond that intention-subconscious polarity. And I realized a beautiful thing: that “other thing” is the essential reminder that we are not alone. It is the collision of a subject with another subject. It is the real world breaking in to my world. I can walk through my day focused on my passions and weeding my habits away, until somebody else stops me and asks for directions. Or tells me they love me. Or hits me with their car. All of those interruptions are reminders that we aren’t meant to write solos but ensembles. They remind us of our need for each other, not just to achieve our individual ends, but to remind each other that we are not God. When the world throws us on our heels, it usually feels like an annoyance, or, worse, a tragedy. But it is also an awakening, as sure as the one that helped me see beyond the play-world of fantasy football, that we are meant to lift our eyes higher and see a far more mysterious and beautiful world beyond the borders we build.

The Joy of the Gospel vs. the Anguish of the World

If you want to name a central theme to Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, you could do worse than this. After all, the name of the apostolic exhortation is Latin for “Joy of the Gospel.” So.

But since it’s Lent when I’m writing this, let me point out both sides. Francis focuses on the Joy aspect because, for him, the best part of our faith, and the reason for spreading it, is the joy it engenders. But he doesn’t overlook that the world offers other alternatives that promise happiness, and they all dead-end in anguish.

In his opening paragraph, Francis contrasts the joy of Christ with “sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and and loneliness.” (1). He talks about “the great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” (2)

Some Christians miss the joy part. “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” may be his best line in the whole thing, mostly because we know those folks. (6). But Joy doesn’t equal happiness. “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”

Instead of this enduring if variably intense joy, we often get trapped looking and settling for happiness. He quotes his predecessor: “our ‘technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy.'”(7)

Instead, the Christian community finds joys in little things: “an evangelizing community is filled with Joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.” (24)

The world isn’t often like this, and Francis admits it. “The Joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to love and, often to live with precious little dignity.” (52) “…Priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.”(62)

But it’s not just the darn kids on the lawn; it’s inside the Christian too. Francis points out that what often does in the joy of the Gospel is a “‘gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.’ A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.” (83) (Incidentally, while the tomb sentence is Francis, the gray pragmatism comes from the pre-Pope Benedict writings of then-Cardinal Ratzinger.). Francis also warns of a Christian “defeatism” that turns us into “‘sourpusses,'” (which must have been fun to translate from the Latin) (85)

But that’s not what the Church is all about. In his section on the homily (or sermon), Francis says “The Lord enjoys talking with his people; the preacher should strive to communicate that same enjoyment to his listeners.” (141) The Church teaching should be “marked by Joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines…” (165). “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties.” (167) “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.” (168)

His best summation of the dynamic comes in his closing chapter. The treasure of the Gospel “is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love.” (265) “A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.” (266)