What is it about the most wonderful time of the year that also makes it the most stressful time of year? Sure, there’s all the buying and wrapping of gifts, the effort required to decorate our homes with effective cheer, and who can forget the amount of time needed for baking all those treats that inspire New Years’ resolutions come January? But there’s another time-honored holiday tradition that raises the stress barometer: the somewhat awkward “check-in” chats we have with those we love, but may not often see--the conversations that force us to hold a mirror to ourselves and think about life’s direction whether we’re in the mood or not.
Perhaps you were asked (or were the one asking) one of these yesterday: “How’s that job you said was ‘just temporary’ four years ago?” “Remember when you used to say you were going to write novels? How’s that going?” “So, when exactly did you give up on the idea of marriage?” Okay, depending on your family dynamic, the questions probably weren’t quite that harsh. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that pleasant holiday chit-chat with those we love can, occasionally, have a certain unintentional Inquisition-like undertone, particularly when we’re not fully sold by our attempts to answer like we have it all figured out. Regardless of age, there remains a part of us that doubts and occasionally feels stuck--the inner teenager no one bothered telling you still exists when you grow up.
Maybe you’re reading this and happily unable to relate. Perhaps you’re perfectly authentic, securely settled in your calling, and unflinchingly happy. But from my vantage point, we never win that prize here on earth--at least not in any permanent way. Wasn’t it Augustine who said a human being is restless until they rest in God? So, why do we buy into the myth that the process of actively becoming ourselves has an end date? Following our deepest desires, “letting our life speak” as Parker Palmer says, is, for better or worse, an ongoing process that endures for as long as we do.
Reflecting on one's desires and true self can be viewed as self-absorption, or perhaps put more politely, unnecessary naval-gazing. But God gave us particular gifts for particular reasons. Unless we take time to recognize them, how can we use them to serve others? When I first joined the Jesuits, I tried to mold myself into something resembling the impressive and successful Jesuits I admired, painstakingly trying to squash the parts of myself that didn’t quite fit. I hadn’t yet realized that Jesuit formation isn’t about ignoring who we really are and contorting ourselves into who we think we ought to be. Instead, Jesuit formation tries to help us get closer to the authentic self God created—not to betray, ignore, or run from God’s gifts to us.
This tension between who we ought to be and who we really are is universal and lifelong. I recall a conversation I had with an 82-year-old retired doctor who had been excellent at his job, but admitted, almost in a whisper, he never really loved medicine, but did it to please his parents. He said with trepidation, “It’s taken me 82 years to say it, but the thing I secretly wanted to do was be a writer.”
None of us want to get to the end and wonder, “What if I lived my life wrong?” But how do we discover our gifts and not only have the courage to say them out loud, but attempt to incorporate them? Boston College Theologian Fr. Michael Himes developed three useful questions for anyone trying to find their place in the world. It’s helpful to ask these questions many times throughout life, particularly when considering new careers, making big life decisions, or simply trying to figure out where God might be calling us.
- What gives you joy? What is the source of your joy? What keeps grabbing your interest, sparking your curiosity, and giving you energy? This is a question only you can answer.
- Is this something that taps into your talents and gifts— engages all of your abilities—and uses them in the fullest way possible? Essentially, are you any good at the thing that brings you joy? This question should be answered by consulting with others. After all, we could find great joy in something, but be absolutely terrible at it. This is where a community of friends—people who have the courage to be honest with us about our strengths and weaknesses—really help.
- Is this role a genuine service to the people around me, to society at large? Here’s where the self-absorption argument ends. Who does the world need you to be? How can you use your gifts to serve others? This question doesn’t mean everyone should go work a mission abroad. Again, God gave all of us particular gifts. Maybe you’re a gifted attorney who loves your job. This question might make you consider doing some pro-bono work to help those who need your services. Whatever your gift, there’s always an answer to “how can I use this to help others?”
Himes underlines all of this by saying dissatisfaction is actually a good thing. Joy, he says, "is the delight one takes in being dissatisfied." Dissatisfaction moves us forward, makes us try new things, and deepens our perceptions about the world and ourselves. So, the next time you’re asked for a progress report on the state of your life, try to keep that in mind. That restlessness we all feel is a good thing, and just gets us closer to becoming the person we’ve always been.
Don't miss this video of Loyola Productions colleague Michael Breault, S.J., a Jesuit “to the bone” and a writer/director. It’s a nice example of how God gives us unique gifts that at first glance might not appear to go together, but upon closer examination, make all the sense in the world.