There are certain things in this world that should not be.
Once I applied for a job with the Cancer Society. I managed to get a telephone interview that lasted fewer than five minutes. I blew the first question: “What is the goal of the Cancer Society?” If I had done my homework, I might have nailed the question. Instead I bluffed, talking about comfort and support – that sort of thing. But the correct answer, in so many words, was, “To eradicate cancer.” Blunt and to the point: cancer is one of those things that should not be. I guess my interest in the Cancer Society was more expedient than sincere and the interviewer detected that and moved quickly on to other more suitable candidates. Now, as a cancer survivor, I identify more strongly and personally with so focussed a goal.
Recently, in the northern Prairie city where I am temporarily living and working, the local paper reported that lack of funding and too few volunteers will force the daily downtown hot meal program to end next Spring. My gut reaction – perhaps in part triggered by the necessity and viability of the Sonshine Lunch Club in the Comox Valley back home – was, “This should not be!”
What else should not be? Well, maybe weapons of mass destruction, for example – or even of minor destruction. Or violence against women. Or racism. Or homophobia. Or homelessness. Or child poverty. Or the exploitation of children as sex slaves and soldiers. Or the pollution of our air, earth, and water. Well, each person will extend that suggestive list.
There is an essential jump, though, from “This should not be!” to “This shall not be!” It moves us from moral outrage to determined action. Actually it moves us to a consideration of call. Of all the situations out there demanding action, which one calls to me? Obviously, we can’t all take on all the problems of the world. But we can take on the one that arises from some impulse within us and beyond us that simply won’t be denied.
How do we know which one is calling to us? Let me suggest a couple of signs of call to look for within us. One is pain and the other is joy. What has been the source of our greatest pain in life and what gives us our deepest joy?
Someone once said to me, “There is a piece of the world’s pain out there with your name on it because you have been there yourself and you know what it is like.” I think this person was talking, not about expertise, but compassion – the capacity to feel what another person is feeling. Expertise can generate a compulsion to control and fix. Compassion focusses on the people not the problem and leads to partnership and empowerment for everyone involved. An old proverb states that it is the love of the physician that heals the patient. When it is compassion – a particular nuance of love – that calls us to respond, we are exactly the right person to get involved, whatever our level of technical expertise may be. What is or has been the pain in your life? How has that made you a more compassionate person? And where might that pain/compassion be calling you to respond to one particular situation in the world that should not be? What is so personal to you and so well processed within you that you are called to that next step, “This shall not be!”?
But let us not get so caught up in the pain of our lives that we neglect its joy. For another sign of authentic call is spontaneous joy. There are many things in the world that ought to be done – by someone else, not us. What we are truly called to do will be an expression of something natural arising from deep within us that gives us joy to do. Where we are called to get involved will turn out to correspond precisely to our personal giftedness. When our actions arise from our truest self, gladness replaces ought-ness. When our joy meets the world’s pain, discouragement and burnout – the occupational hazards of social involvement – are less likely to disempower us. What releases spontaneous joy in you? What are your innate gifts? Of all the situations in the world that should not be, how is your joy moving you to say, “This shall not be!”?
One nurse I met back in the 80’s worked through the pain of her early childhood that had left her with a disgust for “the down and out” and a deep-seated homophobia. That inner work led her to a call to open a hospice for street people with AIDS. Another couple I know listened to their life-long love of nature and bought a small property that contained the headwaters of a stream and are spending their elder years tending that land to ensure that its waters continue to flow pristine for those living downstream. I wonder what in the pain or joy of my life triggered such a visceral reaction to the closing of a meal program in my town and where reflecting on this experience might call me? At least to writing this column.
Whether a community’s feed-the-hungry program or a world’s stop-the-madness movement (we will each name its particular expression as we see it), there are many ways to become involved: through advocacy, philanthropy, prayer, education, organization, direct action, and more. Perhaps reflection on the pain and joy in our lives will help shine a light on the particular way calling to us.
Ted Hicks is a spiritual director, workshop & retreat leader, hospital chaplain, and minister
who seeks the connection between personal spiritual formation and social transformation.