"Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus ... in order that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'" -- 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
A couple of weeks ago I was leading a Mission Camp for young teens. It was a fun week of outreach into the community and learning centered around the theme "The Key to Happiness." The kids learned that the key to happiness is sharing our hearts, and our gifts, to bless the lives of those around us. I learned a few things, as well: (1) my unconditional acceptance of and interest in the kids helped them learn this lesson; (2) the busier we were, the better -- especially for the young boys; and (3) many of these kids do not know how uniquely gifted they are. That last point, especially, got me to thinking...
Henri Nouwen tells us in "Life of the Beloved" that we are all the beloved of God. But claiming that is sometimes difficult, especially "in a world filled with voices that shout: 'You are no good; you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody -- unless you can demonstrate the opposite.'" (pg. 31) Now, I can't imagine anyone ever saying these specific things to anyone aloud, but I do understand that we are much better at recognizing a person's faults than their attributes. And I also understand that we remember criticism much more easily than we remember praise. So it shouldn't have surprised me so much that many of these kids found it challenging to think of three things they liked about themselves. But it did. They could think of things they liked to do (sports, engineering, travel), but not what they liked about themselves, or thought they were good at.
When I discovered this, midway through the week, I wondered if there was a way for the kids to see things differently. How could they realize how much God loves them and why? Nouwen writes that "we have to dare to reclaim the truth that we are God's chosen ones, even when our world does not choose us." And he suggests thanking people who remind you of your chosenness. "Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening your consciousness that you are not an 'accident' but a divine choice." (pgs 57-59) This fit in well with our tasks for the week already, as our first mission had been "Expressing Gratitude." But I also recalled keeping a Gratitude Journal during times when life seemed especially difficult. It was a way of recording all the good, the easy, and the pleasurable moments of my day. When I recorded my gratitude specifically to God for these daily happenings, I became much more aware of God's care of me. So, I gave the kids each a homemade Gratitude Journal at the end of the week, and encouraged them to keep up with it as their final mission.
Recognizing God's love for us is the first step on the road to happiness. But something more is also required. We also need to understand that God made each one of us uniquely special and gifted. Nouwen writes, "From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. ... Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do." (pgs 43-45) This is the key to happiness: taking our unique passions and gifts and using them to help bless the lives of those around us. When we use what is uniquely ours, we become our best selves.
I did not realize it until recently, but there is a great new movement afoot in the business world, trickling into other fields, that focuses on one's personal strengths instead of one's weaknesses. I came across the book, "Now, Discover Your Strengths," by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, PhD, when I was hanging out in our local used bookstore a couple of days ago. These authors describe how using and strengthening our natural in-born talents is essential for our productivity and satisfaction not only in our work, but also in our life. "Talents have not only an 'I can't help it' quality to them, but also an 'it feels good' quality." Our brains are wired to react in certain ways, which in turn sends pleasure signals back up the track. "With these signals flowing smoothly back and forth, it feels as if the line is reverberating, humming. This is the feeling of using a talent." (pg 60-61) It is your bliss.
I was fascinated by their description of how this all plays out in our brains. By the time we are a couple of months from being born, one hundred billion neurons have been formed in our brains, and we begin making connections between them. "By the time you are three, each of your hundred billion neurons have formed 15,000 connections, or synapses." That's 15,000 times one hundred billion synapses!! "Then something strange happens," the authors write. "For some reason, nature now prompts you to ignore a lot of your carefully woven threads. As with most things, threads that are neglected fall into disrepair, and so across your network connections start to break... By the time you wake on your sixteenth birthday, half your network is gone." (pg. 51)
This seems like a waste and a shame, and yet this is how we become uniquely who we are. The authors quote John Bruer in "The Myth of the First Three Years": "Your smartness and your effectiveness depend on how well you capitalize on your strongest connections." If your brain didn't automatically do this, you would not be able to think or feel or connect with other people. And, you would be talentless. (pg. 54)
I was curious what these authors would determine were my top 5 talents, so I took their online test at email@example.com. The test revealed that my (1) is "Intellection" -- which means I like to spend a lot of time alone musing and reflecting; (2) is "Input" -- which means I am inquisitive and like to collect things, like information, words, facts, books, and quotations; (3) is "Learner" -- which means I love to learn, the whole process of studying is exciting and energizing; (4) is "Strategic" -- which means I am good at sorting through a lot of clutter and seeing patterns, and I like to ask "What if..?" questions; and (5) is "Connectedness" -- which means I believe things happen for a reason, and that I believe in my soul that we are all connected, and part of something larger.
What do you think? Did they get them right?
Clearly, whatever our talents, they are inherent. They are God-given. We have nothing to boast about in them. We have no control over them. We can only control how we develop and use them. And when we cherish and use them to serve the needs of other people we are following our bliss. That is why we were made, and that is why we are special.
Dear God, thank you for this week of discovery. I hope that I may always put my talents to good use, always following your great guidance. Yours, Pam