2,000 years ago a great rabbi urged each of us to ask ourselves three questions. Doing so can change our lives.
1. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words, if what I do does not come from my heart, why am I doing it?
We can be very good and successful at something, yet still find it lacks meaning. Even further, we may not be giving the world our best.
Daniel Pink published a book several years ago entitled Drive. It is about what truly motivates high-performing people. What he found was that money and stature are not nearly as important as the deeply felt human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.
We will give our best when we find follow what drives us.
Is It Possible?
Sometimes what drives us can drain us. We’re not always going to feel in control and creative and great about what we are doing. Every job and important thing in life – like parenting – has its difficulties and drudgery.
There are, however, practical ways we can figure out what brings out our best. If, for example, I go a few days or a week without writing, I know it. My spirit feels drained and my mind wanders. But all I have to do is start again, and the passion returns.
Each of us has similar passions we can follow. When our work touches our deepest selves, the routine, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, can become the amazing.
2. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Satisfaction does not arrive simply when we do what makes us feel good. It comes when we serve others.
As theologian Frederic Buechner put it, “The kind of work God usually calls us to do is the kind of work (a) that we need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done… The place God calls us to is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Consider that phrase – “the world’s deep hunger.” Each of us brings a dish to help meet that deep hunger. When we help meet that hunger, we also meet our own. Nothing nourishes us like giving of ourselves.
As a rabbi, I learn this every day through the families of community members who have passed away. When I ask family members about the deceased’s life, rather than talk about work or money, they talk about family and character.
Indeed, I have noticed that the ones who are most missed are not necessarily the most successful and famous. They are the ones who enhanced the lives of others. They are the ones who, like my grandfather, constantly did small acts that helped their communities and the people they loved.
Invariably, family members tell me that the deceased gained more from their kindness than they gave. In lifting up others, they found themselves uplifted. “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
3. “And if not now, when?” One of the best ways to uncover our purpose is to start doing something now.
A story is told of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, the leader of a famed nineteenth century Jewish school. As a boy he was an indifferent student. One day he decided to abandon his studies. He announced the decision to his parents, who reluctantly acquiesced.
“Whose books are those?” he asked. “They are yours,” the angel replied, “if you have the courage to write them.” That night he began writing. The rabbi was on the way to discovering who he was meant to become.
When we discover our purpose, we discover what God put us on this earth to do.
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