Are we asking the wrong questions? (Part II)

How will I decide? Will I be okay? 

In my post on Part I, I suggested that college students and working adults ponder these same questions. Many struggling with the same fears about the future. In my work coaching students and joining with colleagues to help college students find their way, I have found that we sometimes linger too long considering the wrong questions.

What if instead of trying to help students look out in to the great world to find their place, we instead invited students to turn inward. To look deep inside them for the truth — the wisdom of their very nature that would unlock the answers they desire?

At the heart of decisions about major and career plans is this question – will I be okay?

Am I enough? Do you see me fully?

During my time at a Jesuit institution, we invited students to consider these three key questions:

  1. What are my gifts?
  2. What brings me joy?
  3. What does the world need?

What a difference it makes when we begin by asking the right questions. Rather than dedicate time dwelling in their fears about what could go wrong, students begin to open up to a new sense of freedom. Maybe we are not just good or bad? Maybe we are each here to share some spark of creativity, some twinkle of a strength, a perspective not yet considered? Perhaps greatness does lie within us all?

Reframing the questions to invite students to consider the possibility that they may already be perfect just as they are tends to open students up to far greater potential for meaningful contribution through their work. Their aspirations extend beyond surviving, to thriving.

There is an aliveness about them when they are invited to grow their wildest dreams beyond the most stringent limitations they have outlined for themselves. 

This moment, when it happens, is magic. What a privilege it is to see the wisdom and spirit working deep inside these students as they search for who they are, and the ways in which they are uniquely needed in our world.

What might it be like to accept a deep sense of trust in ourselves?

To have a faith that in the end all will be well… and all will be well…. and all will be well.

Parker Palmer on vocation and gladness.

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.”

– Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (p. 16)

“I left.” The times we walk away.

Why am I here? What am I called to do? What work is mine to do?

These questions regularly bounce through my mind. Today was no different. I spent the day at a conference that invited me to examine the role that race and equity play in my life. Naturally this has me thinking about connections to vocation and community. What am I called to do… and, within which community am I called to be? These are the big questions.

Community is never perfect, but I know that without it I am lost. I think we are all lost without a sense of community, at least in some shape or form. What it means to belong may look different for different folks, but at the end of the day, this belonging is necessary. This need to have a place rests at the very core of our being.

During the conference today, Paul Gorski, presented on Consumerism as Racial Injustice. Whew! A big topic. I had not really considered the way my consumer choices support racial injustice. Sure, I have considered how the foods I buy may or may not be sustainable, but I never thought about my purchases as being at all connected to racial injustice.

Considering the ways that small choices in my life, like the foods I eat, may perpetuate racial injustice was painful. It is difficult to think that by living my life, through my very basic actions, I am participating in a system of oppression that not only hurts people of color, but also hurts me. When I heard the presentation I was uncomfortable. I wanted to be anywhere but there. A few people left, but I stuck with it.

Later in the conference we had a debrief session with a guided facilitator and one of my fellow participants said that she was one of the people who had to get up and leave. She said she felt powerless to change things, and the problems seemed overwhelmingly big. I get it. I felt the same way. Thinking about how small I am and how hard it is for me to really impact my community can be painful. Yet I also realize that because I am a White woman, I have the choice about whether or not I want to sit with the discomfort I felt during that presentation. I have the privilege to be able to decide to what extent I am going to invite challenging topics into my life. Or not. When it hits a bit too close to home or begins to challenge me enough, I can say stop. I can retreat to my place of privilege and ease.

My ability to select when and to what extent I feel vulnerable in my life reflects a special power I hold as being a member of a privileged group. It is not a given for folks from other racial and ethnic groups. For many people, there is no choice to decide whether or not they “want to go there” today. Systemic oppression in our country is there all the time. It is daily, it is ever-present, and it is everywhere. I am lucky enough to be able to choose when and how I engage with systemic oppression in my life. Sometimes this power to decide saves me. If I had to let it all wash over me all the time it would overwhelm my spirit in ways I cannot imagine. Of course this is all too familiar for many folks.

During our small group debrief of the presentation we also talked about the ways White people typically follow and perpetuate the predominantly individualistic U.S. culture.  It is up to me to change these oppressive systems. have to be good at this work in order to engage. I should know how to do this work well. When we fall short in our minds, or when it feels too hard? I might choose to opt out. Oh my.

So then. How to find the way forward? Can I be healthy and happy AND do this work? What would such a life look like? Living from a place of guilt and shame is no way to live. I must move beyond this, but the path is not clear.

For me, the question comes down to asking myself, “What is mine to do?” What piece of this work can I take on? How can I do my part to build a more just society? Perhaps I can do only so much today, but maybe tomorrow I can do more. Or next week.

These questions lie at the heart of considering what I personally feel called to do. What is my sense of vocation? For me, a piece of it is in discovering my unique gifts and figuring out ways to apply them in the world to make it a more just place. A more sustainable world. A healthier community, not just for me, but for us all. It is not just a dream. I have a deep faith in believing a more equitable world is possible, and I feel confident that a piece of that work is mine to do. It may not be clear to me now, but there is a quiet voice I cannot ignore. 

What do you feel called to do? In what ways is this impacted by your sense of belonging? In what ways do you want to get up and leave? When would it be easier to walk away than to engage? What would it take for you to lean in to the discomfort instead of retreating?