O'BRIEN: Finding Fulfillment in Our Limitations
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 00:10
I teach a theology class composed mostly of seniors. They are great company, reminding me of my 22-year-old self as a student here on the Hilltop long ago. This generation of Georgetown students is asking age-old questions to which theology can offer some compelling answers: What gives my life meaning? Who is God for me? What is my vocation in life? What values do I want to live by? While these questions are self-directed, they are not necessarily narcissistic. What we do should flow from the deepest sense of who we are. It is good that we take time to consider such questions before we act. That’s how we become contemplatives in action.
It is easy to rush the answer, as we run from one thing to another. Such frenzy is all too prevalent here at Georgetown, where there are so many good things to do. But therein lies the danger: We may do a lot but experience nothing deeply. The resume gets long, but it is filled with meaningless activities.
A fulfilling human life comes from thinking, feeling, praying, committing and relating to others with depth. Striving to live deeply, we can rely on the wisdom of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. He prefaces the exercises with what he calls the “Principle and Foundation” — basically a mission statement for life. It opens as follows: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by means of doing this, to save their souls.”
For most of my Jesuit life, I focused on the praising and serving part of the mission. However, it is only more recently that I have come to appreciate the wisdom in the first four words: Human beings are created.
We are created. We are not God. As much as we do not want to admit it, God created us with limits. We have limited time and energy. We have a body with physical limits. We have a certain set of talents and capacities. This should be far from depressing; it is actually good news. In realizing what we can and cannot do, we get to know ourselves, distinguish ourselves from others and appreciate another’s gifts.
The great lie of our time is that we can do or have it all. We cannot. We must make choices. We become miserable in the quixotic search to do it all or become all things to all people. Running from one activity or one relationship to the next, weighed down by the expectations of others, we drive ourselves into the ground. We are left with nothing substantial to give to anyone.
Seniors especially face this temptation to do all and be all. They realize that they only have a few months left. It gets worse when the “99 days” countdown begins in the spring. So much to do, so little time. Classes, friends, exploring D.C., extracurriculars, parties. The bucket list gets longer and longer.
If you are in this thicket, relax, and remember that you are created, beautifully limited. You cannot do everything, and that is OK. My counsel is not an invitation to mediocrity. Jesuits speak about the magis as much as being contemplatives in action. The magis, which means, in Latin, the more or the better, demands that we never settle for mediocrity but strive for excellence. We strive to be more loving, more dedicated, more creative, more courageous and more passionate. The magis, however, is not an invitation to workaholism and self-defeating perfectionism. The magis is not about the quantity of what we do; instead it is about the quality.
If you are counting the months until graduation, I suggest focusing on depth, not to-do lists. Spend time and energy on the people, learning and activities that are most meaningful to you or choose experiences that will stretch you, or offer greater service to others. If how you choose your beautifully limited time is not informed by the deepest sense of who you are, your senior year is not yours — it’s your friends’ or parents’, your insecurities’, your future paycheck’s. Make it yours. Go to the bucket list but select only a couple of items and savor the experience.
Last summer, I celebrated my 25th reunion from Georgetown. Bonding with old friends, I realized again that the friendships and experiences that mattered most to me, after a quarter of a century, were those that I focused on making deep. Now is the time to begin your meaning-making.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is the vice president for mission and ministry. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … appears every other Tuesday.