Re-thinking Buechner’s "deep gladness"

Many of the Lutherans I hang out with on a regular basis really like Frederick Buechner–even though he isn’t Lutheran, I think many of us would like to claim him!  Anyway, one of Buechner’s quotes that I hear all the time, and people seem to really appreciate, is this one, from Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC:  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Now, I have nothing against this idea–although to be honest, I’m a little suspicious that many Christians have latched onto it primarily for the “deep gladness” part, which facilitates our assumption that God wants for me the same things I want for myself; and if I’m happy, God’s happy.  [That’s for you, Patrick–inside joke with my students….]  Even when you don’t lose sight of the “deep hunger” piece, there is a chance that you can take it so broadly and metaphorically that anything you do can “count” as meeting some “hunger” in the world.  [I’m thinking now of that new commercial for the iPad air–you know the one:  “the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” Watch it here:]  I do think the world needs all of our diverse gifts and skills, and I do believe in art, beauty and love for their own sake; however, I’m not sure we’re always the best judge of our “contribution”–or that the “verse” we want to share is the one that the the poem at large really needs.

And, at the same time, I find myself thinking of all the millions and millions of people who don’t have the luxury of vocational options or writing poetry, those who make their choices not based on their own “deep gladness” but on the hope of some possible future gladness for their children, or their children’s children.  Or who have forgotten what “gladness” even feels like, and make their choices simply to survive from one day to the next.  What of them? 

All of these thoughts were prompted by this article I read a few days ago:

As you can tell from the title, the author is challenging the mantra of “do what you love” when it comes to big-picture thinking about one’s life.  Instead, he says, there are more dimensions of life that should be considered besides one’s own personal enjoyment and gratification.  This is the quote in the article that I liked the best:  

“Dr. King taught that every life is marked by dimensions of length, breadth and height. Length refers to self-love, breadth to the community and care of others, and height to the transcendent, to something larger than oneself. Most would agree with Dr. King’s prescription that self-fulfillment requires being able to relate yourself to something higher than the self. Traditionally, that something ‘higher’ was code for God, but whatever the transcendent is, it demands obedience and the willingness to submerge and remold our desires.”

Maybe this is exactly what Buechner was trying to get at, but, for me, this image of three dimensions of life and our responsibility to all of them–and the recognition that sometimes one of them ends up with disproportionate influence over us–resonates more strongly.  Sometimes gladness and hunger just don’t come together, and we have to choose: and when we do, we have to remember that thinking that we always should be able to find “deep gladness” in the work God calls us to do at various points in our lives is delusional, and we will be gravely disappointed as we hop from one place to other seeking that “gladness” [again, especially if one’s operating synonym for gladness is “happiness.”]  

Please let me be clear here:  I am not saying that if you are in a miserable situation God intends you to stay there, period.  [There’s lots I don’t know about God, but I’m quite certain God has zero sadistic tendencies and does not intend us to die a slow spiritual death].  I have no special insight into the working of the Holy Spirit in your life and I am not trying to give anyone any specific advice in any specific situation.  What I am saying is that our vocation in the world is relational, complicated, and ever-changing:  we always are discerning the Spirit’s call in our lives at any given point, thinking not only about ourselves but about the lives of all those with whom we are in relationship.  I just think it’s important to say that sometimes it’s not that we need to form our lives around our desires, but as the author said, it’s our very desires that need to be re-formed.  Basically, that’s the sentiment with which the article ends:

“Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.”

I guess I just think that’s true–not for a lifetime, God willing, or even for a long time–but sometimes hunger simply trumps gladness, and there’s no way around it, you just have to go through it.  However, because I’m an optimist, I will dare to say more: I do think it’s possible [though it doesn’t always happen] that we can find our gladness in the world’s hunger, even though when we started, we were sure that wasn’t going to be the case.  God does work in mysterious ways, after all.

One thought on “Re-thinking Buechner’s "deep gladness"

  1. Yes, yes, yes. These are important thoughts for discernment of any kind. And while I like to make decisions based on an internal thermostat (or intuition), there's always a little voice that tells me that's too easy. And so I check with others – those who know me and people I trust. And, of course, that often invites struggle. And, as it turns out, that's often where we find our meeting place with God's call. I think there are pivotal times (yes plural) in our lives when we go through this – vocational discernment and vocational call as you mention is ongoing and ever-changing. – Rings a bell about God making all things new. Thanks, as always, for this article.


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