We can learn as much about who we are from our limits as from our potentials. For years I thought that becoming a college president was the right thing to do with my life, despite the fact that I'm too thin-skinned for the job. But when I embraced this limitation and found work where thin skin—let's call it sensitivity—is an asset, not a liability, the fact that I'd never become a college president no longer felt like a failing. Instead it felt like a homecoming, a return to my true self, full of peace and joy.
We can move toward such homecomings by seeking clues to vacation in childhood memories. When I was a boy, I spent hours putting together little books on how airplanes fly. For a long time I thought that meant I wanted to be a pilot. But a few years ago, I saw that what I'd really wanted all along was to write books.
Our highest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of what others think we ought to be. In doing so, we find not only the joy that every human being seeks but also our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, says theologian Frederick Beuchner, who defines vocation as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need."
The world's deep needs are met daily not only by caring doctors and inspiring teachers but by good parents, good plumbers, good hairdressers, good friends. And as all those people know, the gladness of authentic vocation is always laced with pain. Ask any parent suffering through the travails of her child's teenage years.
But the pain that comes from doing the right job well and the pain that tells us we're on the wrong track are different—and the soul knows the difference. When we're on the wrong track, the soul feels violated and abused and cries out for change. But when we suffer from doing the right job well, the soul still feels fulfilled, because it knows how to take this kind of suffering and use it to make meaning and extend the heart's reach.
This emphasis on self and gladness has nothing to do with selfishness. The Quaker writer Douglas Steere said that the ancient human question "Who am I?" leads inevitably to the equally important question "Whose am I?" since there is not selfhood outside of relationship.
When we answer the "Who am I?" question as honestly as we can, we will be more authentically connected to the community around us and will serve more faithfully the people whose lives we touch—for the gift of self is, finally, the only gift we have to give.
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