The Personalist Project

A dear friend wondered aloud recently, after a prolonged illness, "What is my mission? What is my goal?"

"As my energy returns, every decision on how to spend my time feels laden. It's all potential energy. All choices on spending my energy feel like a gamble."

I replied:

I think...the good we produce with our time and energy and attention often comes out of the small choices and incidental encounters even more than our initial intentional choices. And there is room in every path for those fruits.  The HOW we do what we do moves the world as much or even more than the WHAT. The world needs the person you are. You give that by acting, but it is the acting person that is the gift.

And that's all true enough, as far as it goes. But there's more to this anxiety over choices than just worry about going down the wrong path.

It's comforting to an extent to know that God can bring good out of evil, and that there is no road that can take us out of his reach. 

The real dilemma though is the finite quantity of life here on earth. Every decision we make uses time and energy that could have been used elsewhere. Every choice involves the choice NOT to pursue other options.

If you choose the left-hand fork on a path, you may someday find yourself back at the same intersection, free to try to right-hand fork. But when you do, YOU won't be the same. You will be older, with different hopes, different challenges, different capabilities. The path may look different--perhaps more overgrown, less accessible. 

So my friend has put her finger on a real difficulty. When we choose, we don't only choose the positive good we are moving towards. We also choose not to pursue any of the goods that lie in other directions. We are finite, and that bears its own kind of grief, because we will never know what could have waited for us down the path not taken.

This is the root of decision paralysis.

When I was a student, we called young men and women who waffled for years over the choice between religious life and the vocation of marriage the Brothers (and Sisters) of Perpetual Discernment.

These earnest young men and women were well-meant and sincere, but their lengthy state of discernment and hesitant attempts to test one path without giving up the option of the other led to more than one broken heart or frustrated vocations director.

It turns out that a sweetheart wants to be more than an "option," and a religious calling needs to be more than a flirtation. 

I don't mean to denigrate the process of discernment. A wise gardener will put some thought into the best place to plant an apple sapling, considering the sun, the wind, the potential for pollination, the quality and depth of the soil. We all need slightly different conditions to bloom, and what is good for one may not be as good for another.

But sometimes there is no obvious best choice. There are only good choices, each good in its own way. We have to choose, and place our roots in the soil, and get on with bearing whatever fruit we can. 

Sometimes we face a choice where we can sample more than one path. We can be torn between two or more good endeavours, knowing that we are only giving part of ourselves to our tasks, that we aren't doing as much as we could. 

I think women express this often when they talk about the difficulty of combining different callings--mother, homemaker, employee, wife, volunteer, etc. We say, "I feel like I'm doing too many things, and I'm not doing any of them well."

When caught between competing tasks and roles, the temptation, I think, is often to gravitate towards the calling or the work that produces the most positive feedback--the promotion at work, the gratitude of those you serve as a volunteer, the plaudits and praise of peers. 

These things seem like measures of success, and thus measures of the worth of our choices.

But what if we used a different measure altogether?

Early last week, I saw a smattering of articles marking the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. These retrospectives were respectful and reflective, and seeing them, I started keeping my eyes open for similar pieces to mark the twenty year anniversary of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who had died the same week in one of those remarkable confluences that would make for great fiction if they weren't real.

They didn't materialize. 

But maybe this is fitting for the woman who said of herself, "I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness." She began her work in obscurity, and the world-wide attention it eventually attracted changed little about how she understood her task--to love Christ in a personal, concrete way through loving the person in front of her.

Saint Teresa has been criticised for not using her fame or her ability to raise donations to fund foundations and initiatives to address systemic issues. These critics allege that she failed to make a large enough difference by choosing to focus on simple acts of care towards the poor rather than working to change the world the poor live in. They judged her by the standard by which we often judge ourselves--am I making an impact? Will my actions have lasting effects? Will my accomplishments be recognized and respected by important people?

Saint Teresa of Calcutta used a different measure.

"It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters."

When she encountered volunteers and visitors with dreams of grand, ambitious works, Teresa counselled them to start with small, hidden acts of love in their own homes.

It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.

Ultimately, love is the heart of vocation, and the measure of our lives. Whatever course our lives take, we will never lack opportunities to love those closest to us. 

Love can call you to leave everything, like Agnes Gonxhe did when she joined the missionary Sisters of Loreto, and as she did a second time when love called her out of the convent school and into the streets of Calcutta to serve the poorest of the poor as Mother Teresa.

Or love can call you to drop your plans and projects and open your home to a friend or family member in crisis.

Love can call a man to leave behind his job search and care for his children while his wife earns an income, because that is what best serves his family. 

Love can move you to share your passions and talents for art, for music, for ideas, for a craft--as a performer, a volunteer, a mentor, an academic, or an entrepreneur. 

Love isn't limiting. But it is clarifying, because it is personal. The question in our discernment between good things becomes not, "what will have the biggest impact?" but "where does my love lead me?" 

The call to love is immediate. It is always before us. 

"Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin."

By Manfredo Ferrari (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Doors image via Pixabay

Love quote image by BK via Flickr

Image of Mother Teresa by Manfredo Ferrari (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

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