Several years ago, I was in Chicago for a professional conference. Life-long baseball player, fan and addict that I am, I never pass an opportunity to see a major league game on the road. I took the Red Line to the Sox-35th Avenue stop for U. S. Cellular Field (where the White Sox play; it will always be “Comisky Park” to me) and got off with the crowd.
On the platform was a small, thin, elderly man with Chinese features, playing a two-stringed fiddle (which I later learned is called an erhu), with the accompaniment of a small CD player. The music had a beat to it and was really moving along. His eyes were closed, as in reverie, and he had a smile on his lips.
Facing him was a young African American woman dancing to the music. Enthralled, arms and legs flowing with the music, her face an image of delight. It was clear to me that they hadn’t come together as an act; it was more that they were drawn together… crossing divides of age and culture… by the energy of the music. The crowd mostly shuffled past, heading to the game. A few people paused. I was captivated by how alive they both were in that special moment together.
Most of us want to save the world. Sometimes, we aim to change the world through social and community activism… volunteering at the food bank, serving on a nonprofit board, marching for a cause, teaching English to refugees. Sometimes we find life and aliveness in ventures like these. Long-time justice and peace activist William Sloane Coffin commented on how “wonderfully alive… cheerful… courageous” were the black civil rights leaders he worked with in the South in the 1960s. You can, he said, be more alive in pain than in complacency.
But do we not also bring a little goodness into the world just by the very experience of being fully alive? The musicians at the subway stop were not, I assume, driven by an assessment of “what the world needs.” They were immersed in their passions for music… alive to their passions for music… and the energy of that moment touched the heart, at least, of a middle-aged psychologist walking by.
There are four reasons to cultivate and give expression to “what makes you come alive.”
- It’s good for your soul, and probably, for your body. You add to your ledger of resilience and wholeness with an accumulation of moments when you are enthralled with your life.
- Aliveness creates energy that ripples out into the world. You know this; you have felt touched in the same way that I have when you have been in the presence of someone who was fully alive.
- Your particular contributions to the world… your vocation, your career, how you choose to spend your time… will be more genuine and impactful if they “make you come alive.” I have worked with physicians and other health care providers whose hearts were not in their work, and I have known others who clearly found deep delight and joy in their work, even amid the daily frustrations and challenges that we all face. I can tell you who I will seek out for care when the need comes.
- What are you doing with your life, anyway, if not to live in full and vital ways?
So… what does it mean to be fully alive? Well, you know it when you see it, the subway musicians as an example. You also know it when you feel it, hence the importance of a habit and practice of self-reflection. For me, it has to do with
- Loving the people close to me.
- Looking for, seeing and encouraging the best that is in other people. As a psychologist, I dutifully challenge people when they pursue directions that are inconsistent with their stated values, but it particularly warms my heart and enlivens my spirit to help people to see and recognize the goodness and irreplaceable individuality and grace that is in them.
- Standing in awe. Seeing the majesty of the Grand Canyon, the formed drops of spring rain on a leaf, the sweet image of an elderly couple walking had-in-hand.
- Working cooperatively with a team… work initiatives, community projects, making music, basketball.
If you do noble things to save the world that are outside the circle of your heart, it draws the life out of you and doesn’t really change anything. If you nurture the things that make you come alive, you are indeed addressing what the world needs.
Alas, the game, by the way, was rained out.
The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was an African-American theologian, educator, writer and civil rights activist. Born into poverty, he was raised by a grandmother who was a former slave. He pursued an education at Morehouse College and Rochester Theological Seminary and subsequently served as a pastor, seminary professor and dean at Howard University, Founder (with the Fellowship of Reconciliation) of first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, and then professor and dean and Boston University.
Thurman was at the forefront of social thought and issues of justice and reconciliation in the mid-twentieth century. He studied with the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones in the late twenties, and then, in 1935-36, participated in the first African-American Delegation of Friendship to India and adjoining countries. It was on this trip that Thurman and two colleagues met with Mohandas Gandhi, and were moved by Gandhi’s ideas about social change and inter-cultural understanding. Thurman’s writing, in turn, was strongly influential for Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders of the American civil rights movement.