Each of us has been given gifts & talents-- unique abilities, personalities & experiences that shape who we are. We have this intrinsic worth and value, and we were born for a higher purpose. We have dreams of living out a life of meaning, making a difference in this world, and becoming the men & women we feel that we are inside. There are times in our lives when we get to use those gifts and feel that "I was made for this."
...And then there's the reality that most days, we just have to pay the rent.
I love my job. I am passionate about what I do, and I honestly can't think of anything else I would rather give my life to. But the past week, I have sat in front of a computer screen, doing mindless data entry, organizing financial contacts, calling strangers on the phone asking for money, and going to bed never having left the house, or seeing anyone but my husband (who spent his day doing the same things), my toddler, and my somewhat droopy reflection in the mirror. And there's not much of an end in sight.
We were talking to a friend yesterday who has been in & out of work for almost a year now, and admitted that it is hard to find his identity & worth without a steady income; that he sometimes feels embarrassed at where he is in life. Another friend loves making women feel beautiful, and works at a high-end makeup counter. They both wonder if this is what they were meant for-- and if not, how in the world do they pay the rent and find something out there that brings the fulfillment & passion that we are supposed to have?
I work with college students who are vibrant and full of dreams & hopes. I want so much for them to have a vision for a life that is lived deeply, openly, generously, and that makes an impact for good on the world around them. But I also know that many of them will end up in jobs that are not life-giving, praying prayers that feel flat, spending evenings zoning out in front of the TV and feeling dull & tired.
What do I say to my friends from college-- who had the very same dreams, and are now in their 30's wondering if they somehow failed? Do we still maintain that intrinsic worth & value on those days, months, years when we haven't made a difference, haven't lived our dreams, haven't been the person we were meant to be? Who are we then? And how do we find that person? Can we even afford to look?
So often, we are unable to separate the idea of our value as a human, and the value of the life that we are living. If we don't believe that we are living out a worthwhile existence in the moment, it is easy to believe that we have somehow diminished in worth ourselves. And this idea of The American Dream has caused so many of us to believe that our jobs, vocation, and work-- what we do from 9 to 5-- is meant to supply us with that meaning, value, satisfaction and fulfillment we want out of life.
I know a man who, not very long ago, was an influential speaker, inviting people to follow Jesus in beautiful, risky, creative ways. He suffered a stroke, and is now a crossing guard, barely able to form sentences, let alone use the magnetic, dynamic gifts that are still somewhere inside. Where is his value? Where does he find his worth everyday, if not in the life he is living, the contributions he is making?
If we were to look at other times and other cultures, we would see men who are carpenters because their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers were carpenters, not necessarily because they felt some higher calling to carpentry. A man (or woman) worked hard at their job (in theory), and felt pride & satisfaction in knowing that they had done their best. Their fulfillment in life came from relationships, family, community, recreation, spirituality... and their jobs paid the rent.
I'm not saying that this is a better model, but I do wonder sometimes if we put too much our our identity into our jobs-- something unstable & often outside of our control. Is it possible to live a life of fulfillment, meaning & purpose in a mundane Office Space kind of job?
Brother Lawrence was a French monk in the 1600's who was somehow able to use dish washing, cooking & scrubbing as a medium for prayer, worship, and meditation. "We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God."
Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not usually singing praises while cleaning the kitchen, and especially not while I'm doing tedious admin work (although I do often listen to Queen, and sing along at the top of my lungs). But I do think there is something to this idea of using work as a medium for gratitude and maybe even worship, rather than expecting the work itself to bring me fulfillment, meaning and worth. And as much as I believe in and hope to live out a life that is passionately changing the world around me (and inviting others to do the same), I don't ever want to sell someone on the false dream that our days will all turn out like a scene in an inspirational movie.
I think that somewhere in all of this jumble, the key is to live fully in the little things-- whether it's selling makeup, searching for a job, fixing toilets, or doing data entry-- using it as a medium for thankfulness, prayer, worship. When we do that, our focus is ripped away from ourselves, and we can stop worrying about our own worth & value, and I think that makes all the difference.
Again, I admit that I am not very good at this. In fact, the whole reason I have been thinking through these issues is because I have been feeling a little lost & insecure, as we have left our "real work" with students to focus on fundraising. But I have, in the past, taken baby steps in these simple practices, and am reminded of the need to intentionally make mental lists of the things I am grateful for in the moment, and invite my Creator into my mundane activities. I really to believe that if we live fully in little things, we are living towards something much bigger-- something we may not ever see here, but something of significance, nonetheless.
It is so easy to forget, though-- so easy to believe those voices telling us that we should be more. But maybe what we need, instead, is to do exactly what we are doing, but with greater presence.
[Side Note: Richard Foster's Book, Prayer, has a beautiful chapter on this practice, called Simple Prayer. Very practical, very profound-- and much better explained!]