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This blog entry was first published on the Religion Page of the Gallup Independent on June 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Sometimes I know for weeks or even months in advance what I will write about for this column. Not so this time. I combed through my idea files and came up with a fat zero. I asked myself, “What do the people of Gallup need from me?” That’s probably an arrogant question, because it assumes that the readers of the Independent do, in fact, need something from me. Then I remembered a quote I had posted a few days ago by theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

One of my friends responded that “being alive” is a subjective experience, that it’s different for different people. She said feeling alive might come from being able to pay your bills or eating a delicious meal with friends or singing in a church choir. She went on to say that she wished that some research on feeling alive were available. I agreed with her that what makes us feel alive is unique to us as individuals. In fact, the individuality of it is embedded in Thurman’s statement.

The possibilities my friend suggested can certainly generate positive feelings; however, I thought Thurman was referring more to life purpose than to everyday gratification. In the process of discerning one’s life purpose, it’s common to ask, “What does the world need?” and to wonder if I have the capacity to fulfill that need. But Thurman is suggesting that we look more to what it is that makes us feel alive and let that inform us as to our life’s purpose.

I took my friend’s desire for research on feeling alive as a challenge. A University of Rochester study on how spending time in nature makes people feel more alive describes the qualities of feeling alive as having increased energy, a heightened sense of well-being and also resulting in greater resistance to physical illness. Steven Bodovitz writes in New Developments in Consciousness Research that “…feeling alive goes to the core of what it means to be human.” He says that the drive to feel alive has its origin in the survival instinct and may even lie at the root of spirituality. He characterizes it as dramatic, stimulating and invigorating, leading to heightened creativity. These are all qualitative characteristics, but each of these qualities can be connected with neurochemical responses in the brain.

Certainly we can be aware of the day-to-day experiences that energize us, offering us pleasure that produces feel-good neurochemicals. But how can feeling alive be a guide to discerning our life purpose, as suggested by Thurman? To use feeling alive as a guide requires conscious thought—asking ourselves where our interests lie, what activities and work give us juice. I believe with the poet Rumi that each of us comes to this world to do particular work. I think of this as our partnership with the Divine—that we are given interests and talents that make us feel alive when we engage in them.

I have a friend who is a master weaver and sheepherder. He is also involved in the slow food movement. He encourages people in his community in the Navajo Nation to return to farming the land that has lain dormant for many years. He tries new techniques of fabric art and teaches them to others around the Navajo Nation and around the world. He trains young Diné apprentices in the gathering of plants for dyeing and in weaving. He is helping his community to maintain its precious culture and spreading knowledge to the rest of the world, especially other indigenous communities. He is one of the most alive people I know, full of creativity, full of joy in the pursuit of his life work. This man exemplifies someone who found his life work, his big purpose, by paying attention to and nurturing what makes him feel alive.

Theologian Frederick Buechner integrates the concepts of the world’s need and feeling alive. He wrote, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world's greatest need.” Perhaps it is important to ask both questions when seeking to know our life calling. First, “What makes me feel alive?” And then, “How might that meet a great need in the world?”

What makes you feel alive? How is that related to your life purpose? I would love to hear your thoughts

© Anna Redsand All Rights Reserved
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