Quakers call it the inner light, or "that of God" in every person. The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity. No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of great price.
In those early days of my granddaughter's life, I began observing the inclinations and proclivities that were planted in her at birth. I noticed, and I still notice, what she likes and dislikes, what she is drawn toward and repelled by, how she moves, what she does, what she says. I am gathering my observations in a letter. When my grand- daughter reaches her late teens or early twenties, I will make sure that my letter finds its way to her, with a preface something like this: "Here is a sketch of who you were from your earliest days in this world.
It is not a definitive picture--only you can draw that. But it was sketched by a person who loves you very much. Perhaps these notes Willie help you do sooner something your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self. We arrive in this world with birthright gifts--then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting moth- ers disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots.
In families, schools, work- places, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others. We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then -- if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss -- we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.
When we lose track of true self, how can we pick up the trail? One way is to seek clues in stories from our younger years, years when we lived closer to our birthright gifts. A few years ago, I found some clues to myself in a time machine of sorts. A friend sent me a tattered copy of my high school news-- paper from May in which I had been interviewed about what I intended to do with my life.
With the certainty to be expected of a high school senior, I told the interviewer that I would become a naval aviator and then take up a career in advertising.
I was indeed "wearing other people's faces," and I can tell you exactly whose they were. My father worked with a man who had once been a navy pilot. He was Irish, charismatic, romantic, full of the wild blue yonder and a fair share of the blarney, and I wanted to be like him. The father of one of my boyhood friends was in advertising, and though I did not yearn to take on his persona, which was too buttoned-down for my taste, I did yearn for the fast car and other large toys that seemed to be the accessories of his selfhood! These self-prophecies, now over forty years old, seem wildly misguided for a person who eventually became a Quaker, a would-be pacifist, a writer, and an activist.
Taken literally, they illustrate how early in life we can lose track of who we are. But inspected through the lens of paradox, my desire to become an aviator and an advertiser contain clues to the core of true self that would take many years to emerge: clues, by definition, are coded and must be deciphered. Hidden in my desire to become an "ad man" was a life- long fascination with language and its power to persuade, the same fascination that has kept me writing incessantly for decades. Hidden in my desire to become a naval aviator was something more complex: a personal engagement with the problem of violence that expressed itself at first in military fantasies and then, over a period of many years, resolved itself in the pacifism I aspire to today.
When I flip the coin of identity I held to so tightly in high school, I find the paradoxical "opposite" that emerged as the years went by. If I go farther back, to an earlier stage of my life, the clues need less deciphering to yield insight into my birthright gifts and callings.
In grade school, I became fascinated with the mysteries of flight. As many boys did in those days, I spent end- less hours, after school and on weekends, designing, crafting, flying, and usually crashing model airplanes made of fragile balsa wood. Unlike most boys, however, I also spent long hours creating eight- and twelve-page books about aviation.
I would turn a sheet of paper sideways; draw a vertical line down the middle; make diagrams of, say, the cross-section of a wing; roll the sheet into a typewriter; and peck out a caption explaining how air moving across an airfoil creates a vacuum that lifts the plane.
Then I would fold that sheet in half along with several others I had made, staple the collection together down the spine, and painstakingly illustrate the cover. I had always thought that the meaning of this paperwork was obvious: fascinated with flight, I wanted to be a pilot, or at least an aeronautical engineer. But recently, when I found a couple of these literary artifacts in an old cardboard box, I suddenly saw the truth, and it was more obvious than I had imagined. I didn't want to be a pilot or an aeronautical engi neer or anything else related to aviation.
I wanted to be an author, to make books--a task I have been attempting from the third grade to this very moment! From the beginning, our lives lay down clues to selfhood and vocation, though the clues may be hard to decode. But trying to interpret them is profoundly worthwhile--especially when we are in our twenties or thirties or forties, feeling profoundly lost, having wandered, or been dragged, far away from our birthright gifts. Those clues are helpful in counteracting the conventional concept of vocation, which insists that our lives must be driven by "oughts.
We find our callings by claiming authentic selfhood, by being who we are, by dwelling in the world as Zusya rather than straining to be Moses. The deepest vocational question is not "What ought I to do with my life? What is my nature? Everything in the universe has a nature, which means limits as well as potentials, a truth well known by people who work daily with the things of the world.
Making pottery, for example, involves more than telling the clay what to become. The clay presses back on the potter's hands, telling her what it can and cannot do--and if she fails to listen, the outcome will be both frail and ungainly. Engineering involves more than telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not honor the nature of the steel or the wood or the stone, his failure will go well beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building will collapse and put human life in peril.
The human self also has a nature, limits as well as potentials. If you seek vocation without understanding the material you are working with, what you build with your life will be ungainly and may well put lives in peril, your own and some of those around you. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one's nature, and it will always fail. Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self- hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be.
As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks -- we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need. Buechner's definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins--not in what the world needs which is every- thing , but in the nature of the human self, in what brings the self joy, the deep joy of knowing that we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.
Contrary to the conventions of our thinly moralistic culture, this emphasis on gladness and selfhood is not selfish. We must ask the ques- tion of selfhood and answer it as honestly as we can, no mat- ter where it takes us. Only as we do so can we discover the community of our lives. As I learn more about the seed of true self that was planted when I was born, I also learn more about the ecosys- tem in which I was planted -- the network of communal rela- tions in which I am called to live responsively, accountably, and joyfully with beings of every sort.
Only when I know both seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great commandment to love both my neighbor and myself. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free "travel packages" sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage -- "a transformative journey to a sacred center" full of hardships, darkness, and peril.
In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost -- challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illu- sions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now -- in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts.
Answers offered by the most religiously conservative among us frequently sound too narrow. Questions asked by those outside the faith seem broad and unmoored. Answers offered by the most religiously conservative among us frequently sound too narrow. Questions asked by those outside the faith seem broad and.
But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark. Darkness is not the whole of the story -- every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy -- but it is the part of the story most often left untold. When we finally escape the darkness and stumble into the light, it is tempting to tell others that our hope never flagged, to deny those long nights we spent cowering in fear.
It will not, therefore, come as a surprise when We acknowledge that Our own thoughts as We sit down to write this first encyclical of Our sovereign pontificate-to which God in his inscrutable designs has called Us-are naturally and inevitably concerned with the loving and reverent consideration of the subject of Holy Church. Living out a life of Christ, bringing glory to Your name. I could move the mountains by faith, yet seem so alone. All through the centuries, therefore, whenever men have yearned for the glory of Almighty God and the eternal salvation of souls, they have naturally made the Church the special object of their devotion and concern. Lord, before You, darkness shall flee. The Catholic Church will never cease to prepare itself by prayer and penance for the longed-for reconciliation. Martin Luther King Jr.
The experience of darkness has been essential to my com- ing into selfhood, and telling the truth about that fact helps me stay in the light. But I want to tell that truth for another reason as well: many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives. When I was young, there were very few elders willing to talk about the darkness; most of them pretended that success was all they had ever known.
As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and termi- nal case of failure. It has the power to change the world and better our lives. Quotes and love sayings are just a way of expressing the thoughts on certain subject.
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