“What I do finds me”

20150923_101252-2Many years ago I attended a conference in which the keynote speaker was a woman who specialized in conflict resolution. But this wasn’t just any old conflict resolution between a couple of people who were disagreeing about how to get along together.

No, the people she specialized in resolving conflict with were enemy combatants in war. In particular I remember her telling us of her meetings with Serbs and Bosnians, who had just recently finished a particularly vicious and bloody war. The people she met with were small groups of men, whose families had hated each other for centuries – hundreds of years; men who thought that the other side were evil, bloodthirsty, immoral people who they would rather kill than look at. And she told us of meeting with them in small groups in a single room.

Imagine the distrust that filled that room. Imagine the hatred that filled that room, imagine the tension. Imagine the uncertainty of whether something violent would break out and that she would be in no position to stop it. Imagine the fear she must have felt for her own well-being, let alone for those people gathered in the room. And she had success; perhaps only one person at a time; or one family at a time. But her work in bringing peace and resolution to individuals resulted in, at the very least, small groups no longer committed to violence and murder as a course of action.

As I listened to this woman’s story of her life and how she came to do the work she did, she said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said, “What I do finds me.”

Think about that … what I believe she was saying was that the work she did, the work that saved lives and started changing the world in incremental ways, came to her. She didn’t seek it out, she opened herself up to the possibilities … and let the opportunities take her.

So, how does a person let “what I do find me?”

And that made me remember a book I had once read, called “Let Your Life Speak” by Parker Palmer. In it he says “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”

What this means comes by way of his own personal example. He tells the story that when he was young he came across the Quaker expression, “Let your life speak.” So he lined up the loftiest ideals he could find, the ideals embodied by his heroes – Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. “The results,” he says “were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out. I had simply found a ‘noble’ way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.” He goes on to say, “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”

So, here’s what I think “Let your life speak” means. It means listen to what your life is telling you. All of you are facing the prospect of having to choose a career – a direction. And that is one of the most difficult choices you may ever be asked to face. Some of you may try to make hasty decisions based on superficial skills inventories, personality profiles or parental expectations. And this may lead to you making a decision about what you think you should become. As a result, many difficult years can pass living someone else’s life. That is why it is important for you to take each opportunity to become involved in something outside the norm; to exceed your zone of comfort; to work with people with whom you might not otherwise come into contact; to throw yourself into opportunities that potentially make a profound difference in someone else’s life as well as in your own. And each time you do this, stop and listen to what your life is telling you. This will guide your actions, your decisions and thus define your lives.

“What I do finds me.” This is not to advocate sitting back and letting life happen to you. In contrast, it is to suggest that only by trying a multitude of new tasks, tasks that go beyond what you want to do or think you ought to, can you discover that which you are meant to do. In that way, your life will let the quiet voice inside that speaks loudly to guide you to a more noble purpose.