“Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~Howard Thurman
When I was eight years old I saw a news report on a war. A wounded woman was crying on a stretcher, and soldiers were carrying guns running around her. Up until that point I had thought war was like dragons or knights in armor. It was fictional or happened a long, long time ago. I couldn't believe it was real.
At that realization, my experience of life changed. It felt like it was no longer okay to just be; I had to do something. There was something wrong with the world, and I had to do something to fix it.
This stayed with me into adulthood and, while it gave me a sense of purpose, it also gave me a constant feeling of hopelessness. The problems seemed huge and insurmountable, and everything I did seemed so inconsequential.
I have learned that one of the best indicators of a good path is feeling good, and hopelessness wasn't feeling good. I felt burned out and unsure of myself. I didn’t feel alive.
I felt this battle in me. I wanted to be free to make my choices based on inspiration rather than fear, but how can I feel that everything is okay when children are starving, water is poisoned, and we are killing each other and the planet? Clearly that is not okay, right?
I didn't want to rise up out of the realities of our world and pretend for the sake of my peace of mind that this wasn't happening. I wanted to be present and meet our world’s problems, as well as my fear and pain, with compassion, and then to make a choice that feels good—because the last thing the world needs is another hopeless human.
What brought me to life was allowing myself to feel connected to the rest of the world. Letting myself feel the suffering without trying to fix it and letting myself feel the joy and love without feeling guilty.
This connected, alive feeling inspires me to participate in ways that I just didn’t have the energy for before. When I was coming from that place of fear I felt like I could never do enough, so it was harder to do anything. Now it is easy and fun to be a part of environmental and social initiatives that are making a difference in the world because I am also doing it for my own joy.
It feels good to contribute and give of myself, so I do it.
Participating in my community and having transformational conversations about how we live is enlivening. It’s a beautiful cycle of contributing and coming alive, and I know that my own happiness is tied to it.
I stopped believing that my happiness would have to wait until the world was fixed and started seeing it as a solution.
This receiving the pain with compassion, and cultivating more love in myself to radiate out, this is now my ongoing practice. I can see that not only do I have more to give and make clearer decisions when they are based in feeling alive; I am also embodying the experience that I want others to have.
I am creating the world I want for others inside myself.
What do you think the world needs?
For me, it was important to first look at what was driving me. Before I could orient myself to the priority of my own joy, I had to see what I was oriented to already: I was trying to fix the problems of the world, resisting our current situation instead of creating something new.
What are your current motivators?
- Saving the world
- Putting your family first
- Being comfortable
- Testing your limits
Of course none of these, or anything else that you are striving for, are bad motives. But what would it be like if your primary motive was to feel alive? Would that change your ability to put your family first or to achieve some new level of excellence?
It may seem that what brings you alive is at odds with your obligations or even your other values. When you have people depending on you or a mortgage or debt, you may not feel free to pursue your joy. In truth, enlivening yourself will always feed what is important to you if you remember these three things:
What you need to feel alive is simple.
The little changes that would easily fit into your current life make a big difference. For example, feeling connected to the world brings me to life. I could travel and live on communes or volunteer in refugee camps but that would be difficult with my toddler twins. Having potlucks and building garden beds in neighbors’ yards isn’t as romantic, but its easier and enlivening.
It is all connected.
Your happiness feeds your relationships, your work, your health, and every other part of your life. And your happiness is fed by every part of your life. That means that you can’t sacrifice one thing that is important to you at the expense of another and you don’t have to. It will all work together.
You can figure it out.
You are not trapped by anything in your life. If you decide that you need to travel to be happy, you can. Sell the house, home school the kids, do whatever it takes. Do some research and you will find that there is someone already living in the way that you think isn’t possible.
The Gift of Your Happiness
Your happiness is a gift that sends a ripple of joy endlessly out. It is your deposit of aliveness into the collective experience of life. Your life is what you have to offer; when your life is full and vibrant, you give that energy to every other living thing.
Joy brings out the best in you. It naturally brings out your generosity and creativity. Your genius comes forth and you have the energy to apply it. If every person on the planet were accessing their potential in this way the logistical problems of food and shelter for everyone would be easily solved.
Caring for others is an inevitable part of enlivening yourself. When you feel alive and happy you want that for everyone else and you begin to see how other people’s happiness will add to your own. You begin to approach conflict with the goal of enlivening everyone involved. Even conflict on a global level would be resolved in this way if we were all oriented toward our own happiness.
What makes you come alive?
If you don't know, experiment. What brings you into the present moment? What gives you energy? What feels good to do? Notice without judging or questioning whether it's worth your time.
Your happiness is worth your time, and it’s more powerful than you realize. It impacts everyone in your life. Also, your joyful interactions set an example for how we might share the planet in peace.
Photo by Irina Patrascu