In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor gives a terrifying account of what happens to the human soul when it loses its sense of purpose: “For the secret of our being is not only to live…but to live for something definite. Without a firm notion of what we are living for, we will not accept life and will rather destroy ourselves than remain on earth.”
Discovering a life calling, a life purpose is what education is finally all about. Sadly, today’s mindset and educational goals revolve around achieving success. Of course success here is defined not by genuine contribution (meaning service to others), but by what kind of a career one can pursue: a Wall Street banker, an Ivy League graduate, or a doctor or lawyer. We ignore the fact that, as Walker Percy once quipped, “One can get all A’s and still flunk life.”
For this reason it is sad that so much of today’s classroom curriculum is spent on conveying a vast array of miscellaneous facts that are uninteresting and unrelated to life. Students are no longer encouraged to grapple with the bigger questions of life – ones that address the universal longing and struggle for a better world. Nor are they challenged to seek what it is they are called to in life, regardless of the question of how much money they may or may not make.
We need to help our children realize that life is more than getting a good job. Granted, in today’s economy finding any kind of work is precious. And there are millions who conscientiously, and often “invisibly,” work hard at jobs that few of us would ever freely choose. Even so, if getting by and getting ahead becomes our sole focus in life, the forces of selfishness, tedium, and hopelessness will invariably take over. Without a deeper foundation from which to live, and without a higher vision for which to live, our lives will only end in bitter disappointment.
There is a well-known story about a man who came upon three poor bricklayers. The man asked the first bricklayer: “What are you doing?” “Well, I take this brick and put some mortar on it, and then I take another brick and some more mortar, and then another brick…” And to the second bricklayer, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m making money.” Finally, the man asked the third bricklayer, “And what are you doing?” He replied, “I am building a cathedral to the glory of God.”
A great deal of sensitivity and awareness is needed to help a child discover a purpose that transcends the mundane existence of life. It also depends on the priorities you have, and on accepting the way your child is created. Ultimately, you need to ask God what he wants for your child in contrast to what we want as parents. Every child is a thought of God, and thus any special gifts he or she may have needs to develop according to his true vocation.
In addition to prayer, role models play an important part in helping to instill a sense of calling in a child. What I am referring to here is not today’s celebrities, but real heroes who display the qualities of true humanity and who, in their struggle to make this a better world, sacrifice themselves for the good.
Herein lies the true significance of learning history. Exposing our children to figures and legends of the past who lived for noble purposes can inspire them to do likewise. The lives of religious figures, leaders, martyrs, revolutionaries, and reformers can grip a child’s imagination and in the process impact their lives without them even knowing it.
I have always looked up to both my grandfather (a trained theologian) and father (a farmer by trade) who, in their own distinct ways, gave themselves completely to the building up of justice on earth in a life of total sharing in community. But the lives of people like St. Francis of Assisi, Rachoff – the Russian peasant who brought the word and healing presence of God to his countrymen – Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Indian who left everything to teach his fellow countrymen about Jesus, and Martin Luther King Jr. also have had a profound influence on me. It was dedicated people such as these that made me want to live a life that counted.
Who are the role models we can point our children to today? Who can they really emulate? And what about you and me? Do our lives inspire our children to look beyond themselves and their own little worlds to find ways of making a difference in the world? After the work is done and the bills paid, do we help them aspire to what is worthy and good, or do they see in us lives driven by selfish and self-centered pursuits? Remember, children are always watching – always.
Mother Teresa relates a personal experience that vividly illustrates this point:
A gentleman came to our house and he told me, “There is a Hindu family with about eight children who have not eaten for a long time.” So I quickly took some rice and went to their family. I could see real hunger on the faces of these small children and yet the mother had the courage to divide the rice into two and she went out.
When she came back, I asked her, “Where did you go? What did you do?”
And she said, “They are hungry also.”
“Who are they?”
“The Muslim family next door with as many children.” She knew that they were hungry. What struck me most was that she knew and because she knew she gave until it hurt. This is something so beautiful. This is living love.I did not bring more rice that night only because I wanted them to enjoy the joy of giving, of sharing. You should have seen the faces of those little ones. They understood what their mother did. Their faces were brightened up with smiles… The act of their mother taught them what true love was.
Even among young people, beneath their “cool” exteriors, there is an innate feeling of compassion towards those who suffer. Author Hugh Prather shares the following incident that involved his wife Gayle and one of their teenage sons, Jordan. Gale was in the car with Jordan and his friends Tim and Dusty:
…As she began to approach an intersection, she saw past the cars in front of her that there was a man in dirty clothes standing at the corner with a sign saying he was hungry. She asked the boys whether she should give him some money. All three answered yes. Gayle said, “But what if he’s going to use the money for drugs, or what if he’s just pretending to be hungry?” Tim answered, “Yes, but what if he is hungry?”
After World War II German students volunteered to help rebuild a cathedral in England, one of many casualties of the Luftwaffe bombings. As the work progressed, they confronted the problem of how best to restore a large statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched and bearing the familiar inscription, “Come unto me.” Careful patching could repair all damage to the statue except for Christ’s hands, which had been destroyed by bomb fragments. Should they attempt the delicate task of reshaping those hands? Finally the workers reached a decision that still stands today. The statue of Jesus has no hands, and the inscription now reads, “Christ has no hands but ours.”
When we inspire our children and young people to grasp that it is their hands, as well as ours, that we can use to advance goodness in the world, they will begin to sense a calling on their life greater than making a living. And this is a tremendous thing. For, in the words of Friedrich Nietzche, “He who has a 'why' to live, can bear almost any 'how.'”
Life ultimately consists not of things or experiences, but of tasks. Over and above one’s problems, over and above the din of personal desires, and over and above the demand of eking out an existence, is the suffering in the world. And this suffering, greater than our own, beckons to us; it cries out, in the words of Abraham Heschel, and gives rise “to a calling, a demanding, a waiting, an expectation.” In other words, no matter where we are, no matter if we are rich or poor, there is a question that is asked of each one of us: “What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?”
This, to my mind, is the most important question in the life of every human being: something is being asked of you and me. Whatever else we may do for our children, they need to understand that real life is a matter of giving, not taking. Life is asking something of us. Will our children heed its call? The answer to that is very much up to us.