Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy
It wasn’t any kind of special moment when it happened. It wasn’t my birthday, for instance, or an anniversary of anything. It wasn’t even a class reunion. I was just sitting somewhere, gazing into space, doing nothing whatsoever of significance or importance or of any particular kind of enjoyment.
Just sitting, waiting for a friend to arrive. And then it happened. The gentlest sense of wholeness and down-deep satisfaction came over me that I have ever known. It enfolded me like a warm mist and calmed me to the core.
Every ounce of taut energy so common in me had been drained, it seemed. Only the feeling of being totally, quietly, completely alive remained. Then I realized what it was: I was happy. Happy. That’s all. Just happy.
But it has not always been thus. There were hollow, gaping times of uncertainty, when the direction seemed wrong or the path it promised was at best a dull and dreary dead end. Those were not happy times. They were times that were productive, even successful, but not happy.
Then, I read a line from the philosopher Sören Kierkegaard that made me pause. “Life,” Kierkegaard wrote, "can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.”
At that moment, I decided to write this book. The shame is, I think, that there are so many others still “living it forward” who get very little help in doing it in a time when help has never been needed more.
Not too long ago, I and all the rest of my then schoolmates were asked as children in eighth grade what we intended to be in life. It was a serious question; they expected us to know.
The answer a child gave to a question like that at the age of 13 would be used to determine what courses they would be permitted to take in high school–academic, business, or general subjects. Which in turn would determine what kind of opportunities would be available to them after high school–college, vocational school, a “steady job at the local plant.”
Which would in turn also determine the kind of jobs they got, the money they would make, the parts of town they could live in. That single question defined what they did and how they lived for the rest of their lives, in other words. Things were clear. Life was stable. Certainty reigned.
Now, in less than one lifetime, the world has begun to function at the other end of the decision-making spectrum. Nothing, it seems, is really final anymore.
The fact is that nothing we learn in school stays true for very long anymore: The chart of chemical elements has changed. Somewhere along the line, the typewriter turned into an iPad and the job that went with it in the typing pool turned into a position in “Information Technology.”
The whole world, including families and corporations and hometowns became an exercise in movable parts. The technology that changed the world forever last week is fast replaced by the technology that is changing the world again this week. Most of all, it is changing the way we live life, too.
And then, on top of all that, the recession exploded in our midst taking with it whatever jobs or money or house we did manage to get in the short-lived period before it. Suddenly, millions of people found themselves wondering what else they should be doing in life. Suddenly all the decisions of their lives were up for grabs.
So who are we now? And what do we do? And how do we, in a fast-moving situation like this, both make a living and shape a meaningful and happy life at the same time?
It is a world of turnstile choices. It raises an entirely different set of questions than the age of permanence before it that can plague a person for the rest of their lives.
The truth is that this generation does not make one lifelong decision about much of anything anymore. In fact, we make at least three:
The first life decision comes at the brink of adulthood when we ask ourselves what great things we want to do in life now that we are free to do anything we want. It’s a time for sorting out our own life’s desires from the expectations and values of others. It’s the time for finding out what motives really guide us and what goals are worth a life.
The second great decision making moment in life comes in middle age when a gnawing sense of time demands that we look again at what we decided years ago to do. But now we begin to ask ourselves, Did I really make the right choice then? Is a vocation the same thing as a job or a role or a position?
And if what I did was good for me at that time, is it still good for me now? Or is it over? And if that part of life is finished, what am I really meant to do now? Should I get out of this work, this relationship, this rut before it’s too late? And how will I know?
The third life-changing decision point comes at the moment of life that has no name. It comes when they tell us that our professional work-time is over but we know that we are not. At that point, we find ourselves at a new beginning. Then, a sense of both unfinishedness and possibility drives the question, “What legacy will I leave behind? “
“The important thing,” Einstein says, “is never to stop questioning.” And my new book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy questions everything.
It leads us to question our hopes and identify our life’s deepest passions; It prods us to chart our life’s purpose in clear, broad strokes. It requires us to question any life direction which lacks a purpose beyond ourselves.
This book is my attempt to extract from the experiences and wisdom literature of my own life’s search for meaning a vision of the kind of passion and purpose which, in the end, brings a person to say in an empty room at no particular moment with nothing particular in mind, “I’m happy. Happy. That’s all. Just happy.”
Joan Chittister is an internationally known author and lecturer, and the executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality. She is past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Her books include Following the Path, The Gift of Years, The Breath of the Soul, and Uncommon Gratitude. She is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa. For more information, please visit Sister Joan’s website.