"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
-- Howard Thurman
The average adult who goes to Disney World will walk away with two primary responses. First, they'll note that what Disney sets out to do, it does very well; and second, they'll realize that they've just spent a lot of money to create the very same experiences that on any other day they'd try to avoid (like spending a lot of money). This realization came to me several years ago, when I was waiting in long lines amidst congested crowds of people in the hot sun in my quest to ride down a fake river in a contrived raft. Over the course of four days, not only did I make it down the river, but I was also thrown, spun, flung, dropped, scared, and repeatedly knocked over by an enormous wave. I basically paid to have the crap kicked out of me in the name of being entertained.
And interestingly, I was. As I gripped my bathing suit top for dear life while being engulfed by a typhoon, I felt utterly alive. The people around me seemed alive as well. It was a contrast to the experience of walking down a city street and seeing solemn and distant faces. Here, everyone was present. They were animated and vocal, gasping every time the wave would start to come and recounting their adventures to those standing near them as the wave passed. There seemed to be a simplicity in their joy that resembled an infant dropping an object off his high chair over and over and being delighted by its magical return.
As I walked around Mickey's Kingdom, I wondered why our average towns can't feel this magical. Isn't that really what we want -- to feel this quality of enchantment and lightness in day-to-day life?
I see a yearning for this in how trees stretch up toward the sun, how we look forward to vacations, even in how children draw people's hands as large, open circles with fingers radiating outward. I see it in the actions of my great-aunt, who in her mid-90s hitchhiked to see Engelbert Humperdinck in concert. It's all the same impulse. We want to feel good, to feel happy, to feel alive. Maybe, too, along with wanting to show up fully in life and see the beauty around us, we also want to be knocked over and swept away from time to time -- to fall in love with life and feel enchanted by what it has to offer.
Finding our way to this type of aliveness and enchantment isn't always a simple task. One obstacle is that, as a culture, we seem to have a hard time figuring out how to be in relationship with good things. In some ways, our society ignores them. We only have to watch the news to see that happy topics are rarely newsworthy. Leaning in the other direction, our culture, at times, has oversimplified how to feel good. For example, the encouragement in the 1980s to "just think positive" suggested that by chopping off our darkness and willing ourselves toward happiness and aliveness, we would find our way there. Maybe as a response to such suggestions, people became a bit suspicious about being positive: questioning if people who are happy are also shallow, or selfish, or even up to something illegal.
The journey toward aliveness is also complicated, because what ignites each of us differs. We don't all want to go to an amusement park. Even parts of me didn't want to go to Disney World, feeling much more content to sit in a cabin by the woods. I'm reminded of the movie Pleasantville, in which each of the characters comes into full color at a particular point. For one, it's when she decides to take care of her own needs. For another, it's when he finally honors his true passion in life. My favorite, however, is an adolescent boy who stands up for someone else by slugging a bully. In the moment of stepping into his courage, he comes more fully alive.
I love theologian Howard Thurman's encouragement that we need to explore what makes us come alive -- that sitting with this question is more an obligation than a luxury. Sometimes we need to consider this question in terms of what can bring enjoyment and excitement to our lives. Sometimes, too, the key to our aliveness lies in the intersection between what we love to do and how this activity might meet the greater needs of our local or global community. There's nothing like making a difference in the world around us to offer a sense of meaning and fulfillment in our lives.
This excerpt is taken from the book Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit: Nourishing the Soul When Life's Just Too Much, by Karen Horneffer-Ginter, Ph.D. (www.fullcupthirstyspirit.com). It is published by Hay House (publication date: December 31, 2012).
For more by Karen Horneffer-Ginter, Ph.D., click here.
For more on happiness, click here.