What the World Needs

I was chatting over the December holidays break with one of the less-than-immediate relatives that I encounter only around the holidays, and that I have a certain difficulty understanding and feeling understood by. Perhaps you have some folks like that in your extended family. As she told me about her new job, which was going well, I said, “It sounds like you’ve found that place where your deep joy and the world’s deep need meet.”

“Joy has nothing to do with it,” she shot back. She added that she did feel joy on occasions when her children, now grown, visit, but that the rest of life was simply about doing one’s duty. She concluded with a rebuke: “Pursuit of personal joy is one of the most selfish acts known.”

I do believe in cultivating joy, or else we won't be able to bring it to others. At the same time, she may be right about the "pursuit" bit. Dogged chasing after it only makes joy run away from us even faster. So I think in terms of cultivating joy rather than pursuing it – nurturing gratitude for life just as it is rather than being consumed with the pursuit of more, better, different. Cultivating joy means cultivating a capacity to be present to each situation without thinking "how do I get out of this situation what I want?" and instead approaching the situation with the deep knowledge of being well provided for, ego defenses able to stand down, and the ego's fears not inhibiting the natural flow of compassion. Joy, after all, doesn't come from getting what we want. It comes from wanting what we've got.

Howard Thurman said: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." Thurman recognizes that different people are called to different roles. Yes, there are duties. There are universal virtues -- patience, courage, kindness, prudence, wisdom, reverence, etc. -- that all of us do well to exercise and strengthen. There’s also your uniqueness: the particular gifts (and shadows) that you and no one else are called to bring to the world: the enterprises that make you come alive.

The early Hasidic sage Rabbi Zusya once said: "When I am called before the almighty to account for my life, God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses? Why were you not Abraham? Why were you not David?' He will ask, 'Why were you not Zusya?'" Some duties we all have; others are unique to you becoming you. Meeting both brings joy, and joy, in turn, fuels your further blossoming into who you are, your further coming alive – which is, indeed, what our world – and you – most need.