“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something we would never want t0 be, if only we knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?”
– Thomas Merton (quoted in James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are)
I read Martin’s slim book about the search for the true self this morning and was transported by Merton’s quote, feeling as if he were speaking directly to me as I try to sort out my perspective on occupation and duty on the one hand, and dreams and destiny on the other. My education and experience position me to continue to climb the professional ranks; the inherited family work ethic has generally lead me to follow this path without question. But now the questions refuse to fade into the background and the path looks like it leads to a thicket of doubt and mediocrity rather than an upward spiral to worthy achievement.
One of Martin’s central theses is that we are never alone in this search for meaning and identity. If you think your existential dilemmas are more harrowing than someone else’s, you’re probably just a touch self-absorbed. Trying not to assume that my current internal debate is any more taxing than other people’s, however, only makes the choice of what to do next marginally easier. I am certain that some of this could be chalked up to being a recently married college graduate in her late twenties who was raised to be believe that she was clever and accomplished and could have it all. That would really explain my predicament if I was wondering how to balance career and motherhood, but we are not even there yet. Right now, I am trying to sort out how to reconcile the pull of a full time spiritual, writerly life even though I think I cannot bear the guilt associated with leaving what, by all appearances, is a lovely job that compensates me quite well.
Being a Jesuit, Martin flavors his work with examples from the lives of the saints. That’s probably the best way to maintain some perspective and remember that my current crisis does not rank all that close to say, Thomas Aquinas (his family imprisoned him for two years in an attempt to get him to forget about running away to join the Dominicans). At the same time, articulating my desire to leave the 9-5 life behind seems like one of the most difficult things I have ever done – marriage was a simple “yes” in comparison!
As I try to employ this bit of wisdom from Thomas Merton, I admit I am reminded of a cute little slogan that graces the bumper of many a Subaru wagon around here:
To tell the truth, I have always sort of hated that sentiment (even if Dublin Mudslide is the best flavor ever). All I can think about when I see that line are all of the not-so-fun things that are quite essential – trips to the dentist and the dump, paying taxes, walking a dog on a dark, rainy night. Guess I am not such a crazy hippy after all…
But you do not have to look too far to realize that Merton was not giving us sugar coated philosophy when he talks about “what we are made for.” To follow his lead and question our current existences in an attempt to sort out whether we are striving to become something we don’t really want to be is not to choose a sundae instead of a salad, hedonism over maturity. It is an act of ultimate bravery that may take us outside of the expected social norms, but is the only way to fully understand your purpose in life. The question for me is to determine whether I actually have to leave the framework of my current occupation behind in order to discover what I am truly meant to accomplish in this world.
And maybe, just maybe, Ben and Jerry really wanted to say “If it’s not uniting you with your true self, why do it?” but it wouldn’t fit on the back of a Volkswagon.