In the last week, I’ve encountered the same idea expressed in different ways by three different people, and these coincidences have really got me thinking. First, I watched a recording of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s sermon entitled “Wasting Your Life,” in which he observed that most people live below their actual energy level. We could do much more than we do, but indifference, boredom, and/or apathy prevent us from expending that energy. If this describes you, according to Archbishop Sheen, the solution is to “waste yourself” by working hard to give everything you have in service to others.
Your first response to this advice is probably like mine: I’m already too busy just trying to keep up with my own obligations! I’m always running around, dealing with a heavy workload in my job, running errands, tending to the needs of my family, keeping things in good working order. Those are the unavoidable demands of modern life. There’s just a lot to get done, and we’re already exhausted at the end of the day. How could we possibly do more?!?
But then I realized two things. First, it’s always possible to do more when we feel energized and excited about something. Last week, for example, on top of everything else, I threw a Christmas party at my house for my colleagues at the college where I work. I wanted it to make sure that there was food and drink that appealed to different preferences as well as an inviting, comfortable, festive environment, so for several weeks, I worked on the menu, cleaned, decorated, shopped, and set up several areas inside and outside where my guests could eat, relax, and enjoy conversation. I expended an enormous amount of energy (that I didn’t know I had) in trying to make everything right because I had a purpose: After a busy and sometimes stressful semester, I wanted to show my appreciation and affection for the people who all work with me to fulfill our department’s mission. It was important to me that they feel cared for and rewarded, so I found a vast reserve of extra energy to make that happen.
The second thing I realized is that our level of energy is influenced by what we say to ourselves in our minds. Archbishop Sheen gave the example of an experiment in which hypnotized people were told that they were stronger than they thought, and they were then able to lift 40% more weight than usual. Conversely, when the same hypnotized people were told that they were not as strong as they thought were, they lifted 40% less weight than usual. Like many people, I had a tendency to grumble about my massive and unreasonable workload, even though I also view my work at the college as a calling. Complaining about a calling makes no sense! Plus, I see now that it limits what I’m capable of. So, I began my own experiment. I’ve consciously stopped complaining and now do the opposite, telling myself, “Yes, I’m busy — but I can do even more.” It’s still too early to tell if my productivity will increase (I’m certain that it will), but I can tell you that the immediate effect was a much lower stress level.
The second encounter with similar ideas about energy was with mythology expert Joseph Campbell, whose interviews with journalist Bill Moyers were captured in a series of recordings and a book, both entitled The Power of Myth. In his introduction to the book, Bill Moyers wrote, “However the mystic traditions [of the world’s religions] differ, they are in accord in calling us to a deeper awareness of the very act of living itself.” The “unpardonable sin,” then, in all of these traditions, is “the sin of inadvertence, of not being alert, not quite awake.” Throughout the Bible, for instance, being asleep is compared to being spiritually dead or lazy. Being spiritually attentive and active is equated to being awake. Waking up, according to Campbell, involves finding your purpose and living out that purpose, which leads not only to an end to our anxieties but also to what we’re all seeking: a sense of being fully alive. And that purpose is not focused on the self. All of the heroes of mythology – from Moses to Superman to Luke Skywalker — teach us that being fully alive requires living out a quest for self-discovery with the goal of attaining the wisdom and the power to serve others.
The nature of that sense of purpose was expressed by my third encounter with Bishop Robert Barron in his sermon entitled “Give Up the Ego-Drama!” We’re sleepwalking and simply existing, as Bishop Barron puts it, in a “huh, who cares, bored culture.” The key to being fully alive, he believes, is to give up your “ego-drama” (your exclusive focus on your own small self with its small concerns) and seek out your role in the “theo-drama” (God’s purpose for your life). This theo-dramatic role will fill you with new energy and excitement for your life, one that will inspire you to move and to act.
To help us understand this point about the state of our culture, Bishop Barron offers us Cardinal Newman’s famous image of a river: “What gives the river verve and energy and purpose and directionality is the firmness of its banks. The banks are firm and the water’s going to move with purpose through them. But knock down the banks, Newman says, and that river that’s full of energy now just widens out into a big lazy lake that’s not really going anywhere; it’s just kind of sitting there.” In that lake are lots of people floating on their individual little rafts, by themselves, with no enthusiasm or energy that comes from a higher spiritual purpose, the purpose that’s created by those banks through which the moving river flows. Archbishop Sheen would tell us to get out of that lake and off those rafts and waste ourselves serving others. Joseph Campbell would tell us to get off those rafts and get busy living out our higher purpose.
One of the ways I clarified what my own energetic, alive, and purpose-filled existence looks like is by meeting weekly all of last summer with a wise and gifted spiritual director. She was my Yoda, my Obi Wan Kenobi. She helped me recognize my purposes and inspired me to commit to them fully.
I pray that you, too, will find yours.