For as long as I had known him, he seemed a mystery to me. Not in the sense of "I just don’t get you?" But an intuition that there was more to his story. And then one day he satisfied my hunch.
We were seated across from one another, David and me, Mindy and Max, on a pontoon boat, slowly gnawing our way around a smallish lake where they lived. It was the first time we’d been to their house. Clearly, Max and Mindy had done well. Their lakefront home was opulent!
As we putted along, making small talk, one of us—I can’t recall who—asked if they would tell us their story. Max didn’t hesitate. Evidently this mystery man wasn’t as reluctant as I expected to share what lay beneath the shroud of his demeanor.
He began by telling us that he was adopted by two loving parents, and never met nor knew much about his birth parents. However, an important genetic clue came to him unexpectedly, along his path toward manhood.
Max was in his late teens and became acquainted with an older guy who, for no apparent reason, took an interest in him. Though there was almost a 10-year age difference, Steve didn’t look down on Max, didn’t treat him like a kid. One weekend, he invited Max and another buddy to go down to IU Bloomington, to his old fraternity house, to meet up with some other alumni.
Not long after they arrived, so did the beer, in large quantities. And to Max’s surprise, Steve offered him one. And then another and another. All told, throughout the night, Max consumed ten or more beers, a real record for someone who had never drunk alcohol before! And to his amazement, he could handle it. Well, sort of.
The real punch line of the evening came when Steve, noticing Max pounding down one beer after the other, paid him a high compliment. “Wow, Max! You can really hold your liquor!” A compliment, indeed. Those words, as innocuous as they may sound, settled deep inside Max, in an aching pocket of hunger. A hunger to be good at something.
It wasn’t many years later, after continued excessive drinking, before Max became an alcoholic, a clue to the genetic code of his family of origin, and an addiction that would nag him for more than half of his adult life.
Max’s story illustrates in tragic form the dead-end journey of those who choose their life trajectory solely on what they’re good at. It’s such a temptation, right? It feels so amazing to be good at something. To receive praise for a “job well done!” even when the job is consuming beer in quantity.
Obviously not everything we’re good at has the same destructive impact. We can be good at accounting, carpentry, mothering, pastoring, teaching, or making a lot of money--none of which will likely do us in. Yet choosing one’s life direction simply because it’s what I’m good at can become a trap for the soul, obligating me to continue to produce fruit long after it sours.
Take my father-in-law, for example. Dave worked for the same company for more than 40 years as a sign designer. I can still remember driving through downtown Indianapolis and him casually pointing to a sign atop a bank tower, saying, “I designed that sign.” Impressive! Yet sadly, Dave, for the most part, hated his job. For forty years, he hated his job. But it provided for his family and was something he knew how to do well.
We make the same choices all the time, don’t we? We play it safe, choose what’s familiar, what we’re good at—because it makes us feel good about ourselves. And we do so without considering more serious and important questions, like this one that I read recently in Francis Weller’s book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: “What is the gift you carry in your soul?”
Weller explains, “Deep in our bones lies an intuition that we arrive here carrying a bundle of gifts to offer to the community. Over time, these gifts are meant to be seen, developed, and called into the village at times of need. To feel valued for the gifts with which we are born affirms our worth and dignity. In a sense, it is a form of spiritual employment—simply being who we are confirms our place in the village.”
This gift we carry in our soul is very different from an aptitude we possess. This gift is something that resonates inwardly, awakening my sense of purpose, worth, and destiny. It’s generative by nature. It meets the needs of my village. It exists as a singular and special charism that only I can steward. It is precious. And my village, the context in which I live, is hungry for it—in need of it—and in need of me offering it in the unique and soulish way that only I can.
I recall the first time someone named for me what I believe to be my soul’s gift. It was during a turbulent time in the organization I worked for and the leadership decided to conduct some listening circles. They crafted important questions, and I was asked to facilitate the conversation—both a surprise and honor. We convened small teams and I asked the questions, engaging individuals who shared, inviting clarification or summarizing what I heard them say.
At some point, the team leader commented on how good I was at listening and drawing people out, and I recall feeling good at it, as well. But more than just feeling good at listening, it felt as though I was honoring something native in me; a gift I couldn’t explain how I acquired, but instinctively knew how to use, and felt real pleasure in using.
This gift of “listening to understand” has been the mainstay of my vocational, relational, and family life for decades. It’s only since I received training to offer spiritual direction that this gift became “named” in me. After offering this gift of soul for many, many years, I still find it thrilling and deeply satisfying. It’s how I’m wired, and I can say with pleasure and modestly, I think my village is better off because of it.