“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go and do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”
-Howard Thurman (1900-1981) minister, educator, civil rights leader
These words have haunted me ever since I first read them years ago, and they continue to now as I sit here with my macbook, curled up in a thousand blankets (because it is freezing in England). Oh Howard Thurman, how true your words are; how freeing, how powerful they are for me to hear…yet, how hard they are as well.
I have always been a dreamer, a young girl with an overactive imagination and a lot of gusto. I would get hooked on an idea and within minutes, I could convince my two younger brothers that it was the most important mission in the world, and that we had to dedicate our entire lives to it. I was also incredibly swayed and romanced by anyone who could speak passionately, especially if they were speaking out for a cause. I watched (true confession) the Maury Povich show when I was ten years old and saw this horrid sad tale of children who died of e-coli in hamburgers, and I promise you that I have only eaten around two hamburgers since then. Because I had a heart for people, I was always attracted to the more extreme lifestyles and careers of those who were living to help/nurture/care for others, even when the lifestyle itself didn’t seem a good fit for me. For a while, I was sure I would become a nun, then a missionary to Africa, then a doctor. These people seemed to be the most effective in redeeming the world, and that was my passion, right? So what if none of these careers seemed to match my strengths & gifts? How else would I be able to act out my passions in any other capacity?
Somewhere between the end of high school and the present, I have thankfully shed the ‘save the world/I can do it all’ mentality and have learned a lot about accepting who I am and living fully within my own skills, gifts and passions. I have learned, as Howard so eloquently puts it, to stop asking what the world needs and trying to cram myself into certain molds that don’t seem to fit me. I have learned to appreciate and to flourish in my natural gifts and skills, and I have prayed for eyes to see where they are needed and to be able to contribute and serve in those areas.
It hasn’t been peachy though. It’s been a loooong journey for me, and it has involved a lot anguish, fear, uncertainty and questioning. Because, it’s sometimes easier to take the ‘road more traveled’ and to fall into social norms and to never let oneself dig deep…to dream….to fail and to grow along the way isn’t it? I know that for some, it actually isn’t financially or physically possible to pursue as a career ‘what makes you come alive’ and I am so utterly thankful I have been able to do so. I have learned that I am a far better spouse, mother, daughter and friend when I am able to pursue my true passions. I’m beyond grateful.
But…of course you knew there would be a ‘but’. It is a lot harder for some reason to encourage my husband at times when he feels the weight of Howard’s words upon him. I think he actually struggles with this question (of pursing one’s passion) a lot more than I do. It’s funny how he doesn’t struggle with figuring out what makes him come alive; he knows what does and it is clearly why we moved across the world making many sacrifices to follow that passion. He is definitely doing what makes him come alive by studying, reading and dreaming of getting to teach one day. Hands down he is the best teacher I have ever known.
However, he struggles with the reality of fully living that passion out and even though he doesn’t say it, I wonder if his thoughts go something like this:
“I am doing what I feel I was made to do, and I feel like this is exactly where I am supposed to be in life. I’m so thankful, and I’m loving every minute of it. BUT…my friend Andrew is literally saving lives in Africa. He is working on water treatment facilities and he is using art to help heal children who were forced to be soldiers. Amazing. And my friend Francis has given his entire life to do ground-breaking work in genomic research to help end life-threatening diseases. And my friend Wendell is writing music that makes the world more beautiful. And my friend Corrie…and my friend Hahna … And I sit and think. I sit in a library. All. Day. Long.”
It’s almost not fair contrasting his work to so many extreme examples, but then again it is hard not to. Don’t get me wrong, I know we have friends right here in Oxford doing amazing research that is literally helping make changes in the world, but it’s hard at times to not contrast ourselves to those out doing seemingly more physical things with more immediate results. Howard Thurman, it is amazing to get to tap into what makes you come alive and to pursue it, but it is also a hard task to figure out how/why/when/where that ‘passion’ plays into the bigger picture of one’s life and the greater good of the world around you.
We had some friends over for dinner last week and after an amazing discussion we both walked away encouraged and renewed at why ‘we are doing what we do’ here in graduate school, as the student and as the spouse. We concluded, as we always do, that each of us was created unique and beautiful. Each of us has a role to play and each of us has gifts that are to be used and enjoyed and applied to help make this world a more beautiful place. I was affirmed in thinking that although my husband could do the work our friend Andrew does in Africa (these graduate students are always so competent), his heart simply isn’t into it, and it just wouldn’t work as beautifully if he tried to do it. My husband was blessed with a mind that loves logic and reason and loves philosophizing about things. Big things. Cool things. Spiritual things. Important things.
Sometimes even though the fruit isn’t always as evident in our work, we can’t give up on believing in a greater and deeper work that we are involved in. Our lives are like a tapestry and each little stitch here and there is woven into a beautiful scene, but it is never fully seen until it is completed.
If you ever have felt this in your graduate wife journey, take courage. You work is valuable. Your work is important and its fruit might reach beyond anything you could ever imagine. You might be creating a tapestry more beautiful than you could possibly dream of.
How have you dealt with these issues in your graduate wife journey? Have you found anything particularly helpful or encouraging to shed light on this topic?