“I know several lives worth living,” writes Mary Oliver, in her poem about whales.
As we once again face the start of a new year, it’s easy to get overwhelmed at all the possibilities. Which dreams do you focus on making real? Which desires do you let go of? What new things do you move toward? What old things do you finally abandon?
I’ve often thought how tragic it is that we are here for so short a time surrounded by such an abundance of potential experiences. There’s no way we can live them all—at least, not in this life. And yet, the ache to live them all haunts us all of our days.
The best we can hope for is to carve out a beautiful line of experience through the brief time we have here—just a line, in a field of infinite possibility—but even that requires of us our absolute best. As I recently read in May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude,
“One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” — May Sarton
The heroic life, then, carves a beautiful line through time, an artful line, sinuous and clear and true to each person’s highest calling as a human being. A life that is truly worthy of them.
Take Van Gogh, for example. I’m currently reading Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo. In a long dispatch to his brother, who has accused him of “idleness,” and general poor judgment in his work affairs, Vincent tries to explain the secret drive within him that won’t let him take a more traditional, stable route through life. He speaks of his passion for learning, of his recognition of this “something” inside of him that he cannot quite name but that he knows he must steward, even if doing so makes him look foolish to everyone (including his brother), who cannot see this hidden calling, and so cannot understand the secret wisdom behind the choices Vincent is making with his life.
As I read this letter now, I have the benefit of knowing the immense gift of the art that lived within Vincent, beauty of such quality it has moved the whole world…so it’s easy in hindsight to see that his apparent “idleness” and “irresponsibility” were in fact faithfulness and courage of the highest order. But here he was at 25—poor, in debt, jobless, and looking generally disheveled—yet stubbornly refusing to follow a different path from the one he was on, even if nobody else understood it at all. Truly, even he himself didn’t understand it fully back then. But he followed nonetheless. A true man of faith, who accurately reasoned that whatever this calling was, it was from God, and therefore worth the price of his wealth, his security, his reputation (even with those he loved most) in order to follow it.
It calls to mind that beautiful quote from Annie Dillard:
“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.” — Annie Dillard
So, as you look to the year ahead, how will you discern the “one true path” you are made for? What is the “beautiful, artful line” you must follow? Here are a few questions that may help:
If it was entirely up to you and no one else got a vote, what’s the one thing you would love to do with your life in 2019?
What is it for you to “give your gift fully to the world”? How would you know you’ve done it?
Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that “many people die with their music still in them.” What’s the music in you that the world has yet to hear?
Notice the theme in your responses to these questions. I’d wager it speaks in some way to the gift you are called to bring the world. It’s your responsibility; no one can do it for you. So, will you?
How will you pursue your calling in the months ahead?