Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.St. Irenaeus of Lyons
Our fourth grandchild was born a few weeks ago. The birth of a child is a gloriously joyful event: loaded with the manifest risks of the birthing process and simultaneously permeated with the infinite possibility of life. The months of structure and anticipation can numb us into thinking its outcome a foregone conclusion, and yet, those final days, hours, and minutes up to the babe’s arrival are like an airplane landing after a long trip, in heavy crosswinds…so many forces acting upon such a finite moment.
Mom and baby did great and are adjusting, as we all are, to their new reality. I never really noticed the tension of those final moments until baby Blair arrived safely, bringing a wave of relief alongside the joy. Those moments of arrival are emotionally explosive, as joy, fear, relief, tension, hope, and love combine into an elemental mix of physical and spiritual energy – a deep well ready to spill toward joy or sorrow, reminding us of our own impotence in the great gifts and losses of our lives.
Birth is an incredibly visceral reminder of what it means to be fully alive. The life that has been growing over 9 months brings her own voice into the world as all of us wait at the edge of expectation, sitting on that powder-keg of emotional energy. As she cries her first expression of shock and fear, we revel in the joyful miracle, fully alive, engaged in the moment at ecstatic heights.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” For me, “quiet desperation” catches quite poetically the counter-point to being “fully alive.” What is quiet desperation? Frustration? Disappointment? Hopelessness? Purposelessness? We see it everywhere. On our streets. At the corner. In the shelters and food kitchens. But that is not the mass of men. We also see it in our homes, our offices, in our hospitals, and behind the wheels of the cars we drive. Sometimes, we see it in our mirrors.
I was recently asked a series of questions about starting, building, and leading a company. Such questioning almost always begins with a line of reasoning suggesting a master plan – as-if I woke up one day with a specific destination, the map, and the moxie to make it happen. Finally, the clouds parted and my purpose was revealed.
We often talk of purpose and meaning, as if they were some kind of finite arrival. We look at purpose as a form of birth, like we’ve suddenly found or received it, and with it, the clarity of existence. The moons and the stars finally align and the scattered disorder of our life is pulled together in perfect cosmos.
Looking around at the success, wealth, and massiveness of our American economy, it looks like many people have “arrived.” If so, why do so many struggle? Why is there so much despair? How is it possible that the massive wealth and luxury of our society don’t equate to perfect joy every single day? The quiet desperation of existence isn’t restricted to those in poverty, on the streets, or addicted to drugs. All of humanity is subject to it.
A popular misquotation of the St. Irenaeus quotation above goes like this: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Please allow me to extend it. “And the joy of life is to live fully.” St. Irenaeus tells us that God wants to see us fully alive and I say we will feel joy when we are living that way.
Long ago, Plato introduced us to the three “transcendentals”: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. A key tenet of his description of “the Good” was that a thing is good to the extent that it does what it was made to do. This gets to the heart of being fully alive. To be fully alive is to be fully engaged, fully deployed, into our own existence. I’m not talking about fully self-centric. Fully deployed means you’re bringing all of your gifts to bear across the spectrum of your existence.
Think for a moment about the physical gifts you possess. The strength in your arms. The capacity in your lungs. The speed in your legs. When are these gifts engaged fully? Why would we ever engage them fully? We might use the strength in our arms to wrestle or lift or push something. We might use our lung capacity or legs to run. These gifts might be needed for safety, competition, or to effect our own survival in hunting or gathering. Fully using these gifts is an exhilarating, satisfying, and possibly exhausting process. We can’t do it all the time, but when we do, it is powerful.
What about your mental gifts? I think therefore I am. Learning, speaking, listening, imagining, or solving. Back to my grandchildren for a moment. Their imagination, their curiosity, their memory, and the things they say…talk about fully alive! When we bring our imaginations to bear, solve tough problems, speak truth or something meaningful, learn something profound, or listen with understanding, we are engaging our powerful faculties in ways that bring us alive, that engage us completely.
Do you consider yourself a spiritual person? If you believe in God, the world presents itself in a very unique way as the Good, the True, and the Beautiful rest on a Divine frame of reference as you see it instigated by a Creator. If you don’t believe in God, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful remain. The spirit part of your life is what frames it and brings it all into your being in unseen ways, moving, inspiring, or maybe even striking fear into you. The awe and wonder of your existence stems from your spiritual self and brings you fully alive, when you allow it – when you pause to see it and feel it.
For each of us, life is also marked by some form of work. Some of us work for income, some of us work for our families, and some of us work just to survive. Each form of work demands certain things in order to be effective, to produce some kind of desired outcome. Consider the working professional. Your job has specific requirements and you are paid to execute those duties. Within or among those duties, is the opportunity for more. To be fully alive in such work is to use your capacities fully and experience the joyful satisfaction of a job well-done.
The same is true for those who chose to work full time caring for their families. There are the tasks and duties which are necessary, then there are the moments and places beyond duty that bring you fully alive. A place in which you engage your gifts at a level infusing the work with vocation and realize the full purpose, the Good, of what you are made to do in this place.
When we don’t engage our gifts fully, we find frustration and disappointment. When we waffle and hesitate, we find the dissatisfaction of halfheartedness. When we coast, we begin to doubt our abilities and our convictions. Here, we find lives of quiet desperation. Here, we question our own Good and weaken our connection to the Beauty that moves us to seek the Truth.
To live fully is to engage all of your capacities into what you were made to be. Your physical, spiritual, professional, and intellectual gifts are meant to be used, shared, and pushed. A man, or woman, fully alive is one who is fully giving, fully loving, fully creating, fully learning, fully believing, and fully hoping. To live fully is to seek the truth and speak it. It is to look with awe on the beauty of creation all around us and to share the wonder of it all with everyone you possibly can.
Curiously, when we engage fully, live fully, we begin to see purpose and meaning in our life. Rarely does it seek us out. The quiet desperation of uncertainty, doubt, sadness, and hopelessness begins to fade, or can be kept at bay, when we find ourselves armored with a spirit fully alive.
We intuit this. We know the causes and effects. Somehow, we forget. Often, we get knocked down. Frequently, we don’t feel like it. Fully alive or not, the disappointments will come. That’s when we must remember that we’re in it together. When you’re feeling dimmed, seek the beauty of another who is fully alive. The awe and wonder of the child. The heart of the saint. The inspiration of the achiever.
And, when you’re fully alive. Share it generously. Share it shamelessly. Share it lovingly. We are hungry for it. We are desperate for it. We need to be reminded, inspired, healed, and forgiven. The glory of God is man fully alive, and the joy of life is to live fully.