The hard moments of life come when we feel ourselves overwhelmed by a sense of uselessness. We see people around us doing important things, public things, impressive things. Our lives, on the other hand, have been exercises in the ordinary. We know ourselves to be ordinary: ordinary secretaries, lawyers, nurses, teachers, office workers, and, yes, ordinary families. These are the moments when we look back down the years and begin to wonder if we’ve ever done anything that was worthwhile. Those are the days when we look ahead and see nothing but grey. Those are the “What’s-it-all-about, Alfie?”
They are painful periods of life, but they are not unusual periods, at all. Every culture carries within itself stories of quest. Seekers everywhere search for enlightenment about finding a direction in life, about making choices in life, about giving meaning to life beyond the daily and the humdrum. Every young person floats from thing to thing for a while trying to find a fit between talent and heart, between ability and commitment. Every middle-aged person comes to a point of decision about staying where they are or changing direction before it’s too late. Every old man and woman in the world looks back and wonders about what might have been. The questions bay at our heels day and night for whole periods in life: Am I doing the right thing? What am I really meant to be doing with my life? Is what I am dong worth anything?
The ancients tell of a Holy One who said to a businessman, “As the fish perishes on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water and you must return to the spiritual. The businessman was aghast. “Are you saying,” he cried, “that I must give up my business and go into a monastery?” And the Holy One said, “Oh no, no, never. I am saying, hold on to your business but go into your heart.”
Clearly, it is not much what we do but the spirit with which we do it that counts. The only thing worth spending my life on is something that makes life richer, warmer, fuller, happier where I am.
We are each given only one life. The spirit we bring to it, the heart we put into it is the measure of its value. It isn’t difficult to be good at what we do. What is difficult is to be great about the way we do it. The purpose of my life is to spend myself in ways that bring holiness to the mundane. The problem is that only I can do it. How I am, the environment around me will be: full of arsenic or full of the warmth of the Spirit.
-from the Monastic Way (2002) by Joan Chittister