“What is Life Asking of Me?”


New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks, in a rather different style from his usual punditry, wrote a very warming and insightful piece in “The Moral Bucket List.” It’s supposed to be a glimpse into his thinking for his new book The Road to Character, an exploration of what he calls “eulogy virtues,” the character strengths that we will be remembered by, or in his words, the ones that “are talked about in your funeral.”

It’s a deep dive into what he considers are qualities of those who have found “inner light,” those who have endured personal confrontation and recognized that life is not always about our plans, but rather what life has planned for us. His proposed bucket list includes:

The bucket list part was great but his summation of the person with this inner light really gave me pause (emphasis mine):

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.

The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.

As I turned a quarter-century old, this message couldn’t have come at a better time. The past two years have challenged me more than the previous twenty-three years combined and really gave me the “radical self-understanding” Brooks was speaking of.

I endured bouts of anxiety, massive self-doubt, and a heart-wrenching break-up amongst other things. It took tons of courage and an ongoing search for solitude each day. I didn’t always come out as strong as I’d like, but I’m trying, and I’m still here (better than ever!). Because of these struggles, I believe I’ve grown exponentially, and while I still have plenty of work to do (and will do so until I die), I’m filled with gratitude and contentment and have learned the value of acceptance and the power of calm at a greater degree than I have before.

I attribute plenty of that to meditation (with the help of Headspace app), and Ryan Holiday’s book on Stoicism titled The Obstacle is The Way, two resources I can’t recommend enough, as both have made me more cognizant of what is within my control and what is beyond my control.

Does admitting I struggled make me seem crazy? Should I now be considered weak? I certainly don’t think so. I’m just another human being who has his own crosses to bear. The difference is, I’m capable of vulnerability. I think showing our humanity is a sign of great strength, and that’s no small feat. I consider myself blessed that I even struggle because it exposes me to the multitudes life can offer. It’s admitting that we are not immune to suffering, and that it’s simply a part of life for everyone who’s ever lived, but not letting this stop us from getting to where we want to go. That is courage.

As for what life is asking of me, I’m still searching, and I think that question is what makes life beautiful because the answer can vary daily depending on what we have in front of us and what we have at our disposal1. But this time around, I approach each opportunity and every moment with utmost confidence, enthusiasm, and curiosity to the best of my abilities. I am a better person today because of everyone that I’ve met and everything that I’ve experienced. I hope I continue on this journey and ultimately be a person who radiates inner light, so that others may see that darkness is merely a state all of us go through, and more importantly, that we have the potential to illuminate far greater than we’ve ever imagined. :)

  1. To quote Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning: “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” 


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