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What is Our Answer to Life’s One Question?

June 30, 2016


Recently, students across the country, donned in black caps and gowns, prepared for their descent from the guarded and secure microcosm of higher education into the “real world,” as they call it. These commencement ceremonies mark an occasion for celebration, excitement and unbridled hope. And while we extend a warm congratulations and heartfelt “good luck” to all graduates this time around, we’re now doing so to the last remnant of the Millennial generation. According to the “experts”, those born around the mid-nineties or later now constitute the next generational installment known as “Generation We” or “Generation Z.” And so, the world prepares to welcome the very first members of this generation into adulthood.

Unexpectedly, Generation Z is often compared to the Greatest Generation due to its members’ work ethic, independence and (at least compared to their Millennial older siblings) much more grounded expectations and goals. Mind you, this is a generation with only a few pre-9/11 memories. It’s a generation that witnessed their parents and relatives lose their jobs and houses during the Great Recession. It’s a generation that has grown up in the midst of school shootings and terrorist attacks—harrowing events that are now instantly accessible and gruesomely detailed on the account of technology that previous generations could never have dreamed up by even their most creative and prescient members.

It’s interesting to observe the “experts” point out the similarities and differences between generations: “X” generation is better than “Y” generation, pun intended, because of this or that. And while there are surely differences, there are some fundamental attributes that rear their head from the crowd of every generation. Regardless of our time or cultural milieu, we all wonder why we’re here and what—if anything—we’re supposed to do about it.

Viktor Frankl, the famous Jewish psychiatrist who survived as a prisoner at a concentration camp during the reign of one of history’s most brutal regimes, said this:

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”

This comes from a man who faced evils that I quite frankly can’t imagine. Still, despite witnessing such horrible evil—the level of barbarity that would make despair a natural and understandable response—he understood that each and every life was gifted with a mission: an inimitable vocation that could never be replaced or deferred.

Vaclav Havel, the brilliant Czech playwright and politician, echoed a similar idea:

“The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.”

These men understood that life demands a response from us—that we are not simply renting out space on an ancient rock drifting haphazardly in the cosmos, but that there is something we must do. 

Of course, such an idea shouldn’t come as revelatory, since the Catholic Church has been spreading it for 2,000 years. God gives us a name—he formed us tenderly in the womb—and calls us to some great end, both in this life and the next. However, though called, we must ultimately choose to respond. Or not.

Walker Percy, one of my favorite Catholic writers, provides us with a demanding—and even frightening—question. I believe it’s the same question God asks us every day of our lives:

“Knowing what you know about yourself and about the world, what are you going to do?”

The ability to give a meaningful and noble answer to such a question presupposes two things: that we know ourselves and that we know the world. To achieve the first condition, knowing ourselves, we must begin with the one and necessary thing: prayer. 

In Fr. Jacque Philippe’s book, Thirsting for Prayer, he says this about the priority of prayer in unearthing our authentic selves:

“One of the fruits of prayer is that it gives us a progressively deeper knowledge of God and ourselves. Prayer introduces us little by little into a real knowledge of God…The main aim of this personal revelation of God, the essential fruit of prayer, is to know him as Father.” 

We cannot come to know God better without coming to know ourselves better as a result, for God dwells in our innermost being. In prayer we allow God to raise his divine mirror to our weary faces and show us who we are supposed to be and how—gradually and with patient grace—we can go about becoming it.

However, we must not end with prayer. We also have to use our natural abilities—our mind, reason and intelligence. Thomas Merton urges us to use our God-given gifts and circumstances as a testament to true and efficacious faith in his No Man Is An Island. We don’t simply pray and expect God to act, we pray and act, trusting that God will make fruitful our actions for his grand and perfect purposes. This means we must look with an honest and critical eye at our gifts, talents, flaws, weaknesses, circumstances and the overall place and time in which we find ourselves. And then we must ask questions: Why have I been given the great privilege of an education when so many others haven’t? Why do I have certain talents or lack certain ones? Why do I have to cope with specific struggles, illnesses and sufferings, and what lesson is there for me in them? We must ask questions like these with prayerful yet rigorous diligence in order to come to know who we are, and what it is we have to share with the world. 

“Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will, and being just what God wants us to be.” – St. Therese of Lisieux

The simplicity and straightforwardness of St. Therese’s words should encourage us. There is liberation in the complete acceptance that we’re not enslaved to becoming what our ego demands (successful, wealthy, important, accomplished, etc.), but rather, only what our generous and loving Father desires.

Returning to Percy’s sobering inquiry, we must additionally know the world. This is—at least to me—the greater challenge. We can easily turn content walled within a comfortable solace of prayer and self-reflection. But if there is nothing more, then we lose sight of the world—the spiritually poor occupying our neighborhoods and wrestling with despair, the bitter and wounded who have lost sight of their own inner beauty, the bored and restless who ache for meaning in a world that only honors extrinsic accolades.

If we have eyes that only look inward instead of out, then how we can possible know what it is we have to offer that the world yearns—and desperately needs? And this shouldn’t be limited to the confines of the blatantly religious or spiritual. Yes, there is no doubt that we must feed the poor, evangelize the ignorant, protect the unborn, and heal the sick and suffering through the visible auspices of the Catholic Church. But more is demanded of us. We are called to enter into every realm of human industry—the sciences, the arts, business, politics, medicine, etc.—and flood each one with God’s grace in order to bring about the Kingdom of God. 

When we walk into our place of business every morning do we see ourselves as children sent by the Father to bring justice, ethics and human flourishing to the marketplace? Or do we strive only for profit, ROI and greater brand recognition? As scientists do we seek to bring greater scientific and technological advancement first and foremost for the good of others, or do we seek to play God and marvel at the heights of human intelligence? As artists do we seek to bring truth and beauty to the world in order to elevate creation, or do we create only to entertain, distract and degrade for the sake of frothy popularity and fame? 

Those are the types of questions we can’t be afraid to ask ourselves in prayer. As we welcome another cohort of graduates into the world, let us pray that they—with all of us—will offer meaningful answers to the question life asks of us. And when God poses this very question to us at the end of our lives, may we be able to say that we loved the world and others in the way that only we knew how—in the way that only we could.

Photo credit: John Walker