One of the things I most appreciate with Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise, is all the other voices she brings into her work. In effect, she marshals many and various voices to describe, discuss and deploy the wisdom in our world. Of course, one source of wisdom is history itself. Whether it is the wisdom of sacred scriptures, like the Psalms, or the wisdom of particular people, like Socrates, history is a rich resource. And in my estimation folks don’t spend much time reading and thinking about what history can teach us. Too often, we prefer the stupidity of our contemporary culture!
Another source of wisdom is the wise ones who still are living and willing to teach us. Tippett brings together so many of the voices, as she has interviewed an incredible variety of people in her work as a broadcaster. While I know many of the names she brings forth, I also have met a great number whom I did not know. One especially notable group she has helped me begin to learn is the poets. I have been deficient in my knowledge of poetry and she is helping me.
Rather than focus on some unnamed wise poet, however, in this inspirational piece I would like to share from a wise one I know, Vincent Harding. Harding was a revered teacher, speaker and worker for justice for more than a half century. He died in 2014 after a storied career of making a difference. He was a fellow worker with Martin Luther King and continued to implement King’s dream in his various capacities. I heard Harding speak more than once. More than once, I felt his challenge and appreciated his encouragement.
In Tippett’s interview with Harding she asks, “When you say that we as human beings have a built-in need for stories, what your work shows is that we human beings also know what to do with stories, right?” She continued to note that Harding felt like “the young people you work with know how to take those stories as tools and pieces of empowerment in this day, this year.” I loved how Harding responds.
Harding says, “Yes, as tools for their own best work.” Harding feels like young people can take the stories of their elders and their sages as tools for their own good work. And then Harding adds this note that was so perceptive. He feels “Now is a powerful time in this country for young people and others to be asking the question, What are we for?” What are we for? That is an amazing question. If we come to have a good answer, we should have a good life. Let’s pursue this.
Harding helps us see how to use this powerful question. He asks, “Do we exist for some reason other than competing with China or finding the best possible technological advances? Are there some things that are even deeper that we are meant for, meant to be, meant to do, meant to achieve?” These two questions prompt me and us to think about how to answer, what are we for? My first attempt at thinking about Harding’s question is to realize we can be for the more general and superficial.
I certainly am not dismissing China or any other nation as superficial. And technology is so sophisticated, it is amazing to ponder. I never dreamed I would carry around a computer in my pocket and simply call it a “phone.” Regardless of the technological sophistication, I do not think I exist for technology. Harding is correct: there are some things deeper that I am meant for, meant to be, meant to do and, perhaps, even achieve. Let’s consider this for a brief time.
I have lived so far into my life, I hope I have been at work on some deeper and important things. At this stage in life I would say that I am meant for God and for all that is God’s. That is both simple and potentially deep. It is in my real life that being for God becomes particular and specific. I am meant to be spiritual. That includes so many things that Vincent Harding also tried to be: worker for justice, giver of mercy and lover of all human beings. It is challenging.
What I am meant to be is linked to what I am meant to do. At the simple level, I am meant to live out the justice, mercy and love I am meant to be. This happens with students, faculty colleagues and even people on the street I do not know. Every day I am given new opportunities to live out what I am meant to do. It involves the early morning greeting to the clerk offering me coffee to the late night interaction with the confused student. Can I be loving and do love? That is the question. That is what I am for!
I am not sure I think much about what I am meant to achieve. Perhaps I did more of this when I was younger. I seldom think about my achievements. I prefer to think more in terms of obedience. Was I obedient to the God who created me, loved me and wants me to do what God desires me to do? Was I effective in being a servant-leader? Did I check my ego and make my self available to others in ways that make a positive difference?
“What are we for” is a wonderful, spiritual question that can be asked each new day. Every day you and I live out some kind of answer. Make it a good answer!