Howard Thurman, an inspirational African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader once said,
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
That quotes mirrors a subtle and profound shift that has been marking my life in recent years. It is still hard to explain exactly what is happening. I have chosen in this forum to say that it has to do with listening to the voice of the soul. Funny thing about it, however—I haven’t really changed many of my commitments. I still find myself drawn to compassionately listening to someone as they wrestle with some nagging question or hurt. I still find myself standing on the doorstep of human need ready to lend a helping hand or receive a gift of grace.
What has changed is where the initiative comes from. I no longer do it because I feel obligated to be my brother’s (sic) keeper. I no longer do it because my faith compels me to “treat my neighbor as myself.” I do it because somewhere deep inside it makes me feel alive and human and full of spirit and soul and goodness. My motives are really selfish, in a sense. I do it because it makes me feel good. I do it because I love how big my heart feels when connecting with another human being, easing the pain that life sometimes inflicts, sharing in life’s joys and sorrows.
I remember thinking a few years ago that I could be totally satisfied with a life of writing, playing my guitar, visiting family and friends, and volunteering wherever my heart led me. I also remember thinking, “That sounds pretty selfish. Don’t I have a deeper obligation to my community and my society?” Another funny thing, however—I have been moving closer and closer to that reality as each year passes.
Work for work’s sake holds little interest for me. I want to work, but only enough to pay for those things that really feed my soul. I want to work, but only in arenas where I feel like my heart is allowed to expand rather than needing to hide.
Some days my choices make me very nervous. Shouldn’t I be asking what the world needs and then finding a way to meet those needs in a way that provides a livelihood? Isn’t that how the world works? Shouldn’t I be asking, “In what ways can I shape and twist and contort my personality to make me more palatable to a salary-paying employer?”
But, I am coming to appreciate and even believe that Howard Thurman is right. We don’t need more people who understand what the world needs and then goes to work to meet those needs (noble though it may be). The world needs people who are alive. The world needs people who are passionate about life. The world needs more roses, sunsets and magnolia trees—beauty for beauty’s sake.
Even as I write this I cringe just a slight bit as it seems to smack up against a navel-gazing selfish preoccupation. But, I have discovered that this yearning to please the deepest Brian also puts me in touch with the deepest part of the world. I wonder if I am not just flirting with myself, but with the Self, that soulful psychic thread that ties all of us together as one.
Of course, only a person with an ego as big as mine would make such a claim.