“Do you want to be something or do you want to do something?” That’s the question a friend of mine was asked by his spiritual director many years ago.
I wonder what that question brings up for you in your life today. How would you answer it? What matters more to you – being something or doing something?
I didn’t know it at the time but I think that is exactly what was going on with me that night I sat in my law office overlooking Corpus Christi Bay. I was the newest and youngest partner in the firm. I was fast tracking it. I had good clients and income. I was married and had a child. I owned a house, a car, a truck, a boat, and a cat.
I think that question is the unspoken question at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with the man in today’s gospel (Mark 10:17-31). It holds before us the tension between being and doing, between meaning and purpose. It’s probably one of the unspoken questions in each of our lives that needs to be spoken more directly and more often. If we don’t ask it for ourselves at some point the circumstances of our lives will.
I was doing something and I was doing it really really well. But that night I sat there and wept because I wanted to be something. I had purpose in my life but I wanted meaning. I wanted that “one thing” that Jesus is talking about.
I’m betting that you know that story, not just because I’ve told it before, but because you’ve lived it too. What’s your version of that story? How did it come about for you? What happened?
It’s the story of the man in today’s gospel. He’s done all the right things. He’s been obedient and faithful. He’s kept all the commandments since he was a kid. He’s been successful in life and he has “many possessions.” St. Luke says the man was “a ruler (Luke 18:18) and “very rich” (Luke 18:23).
He’s got power, position, prestige, possessions and wealth. He’s done something with his life. And yet, he knows something is missing. He wants to know, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s not a question about getting to heaven. It’s about meaning. It’s about being something. It’s about a quality of life.
He’s right in asking the question but he’s asking the wrong question. He wants to know what he must do, as if the life he wants is something to be acquired, possessed, and gained by expenditure. I get it. He’s seeking the missing piece of his life by the only means he knows. But the life he wants, the life I wanted that night in my office, the life I think you want, is not about doing and purpose, it’s about being and meaning. It’s not outside us, it’s already within us.
Please do not hear that as me opposing meaning and purpose, as if it is one or the other. It’s not. It has to be both. But I wonder if we’ve become so preoccupied with purpose and doing something that we’ve lost or forgotten about meaning and being something. (David Steindl-Rast, The Way of Silence, 39-40)
I wonder if we’ve confused meaning and purpose. Is the meaning of your life and my life only what we’ve accomplished? Most obituaries would say yes. We tend to mark and measure our lives by what we’ve done, but is that really the sum of who you and I are? Don’t you want to be more than what you’ve done? I do. I want my life to matter not because of what I do but because of who I am. And I wonder if that’s why the man in today’s gospel goes to Jesus with his question.
It’s ironic that Jesus says to this “very rich” man who has “many possessions,” “You lack one thing.”
I can easily imagine the man saying to himself, “One thing? One thing? What’s the one thing I don’t have?” I imagine him taking a mental inventory of his life, accomplishments, and possessions trying to figure out what one thing he still lacks. I imagine him picturing in his mind every item he owns, recalling everything he has done, and then wondering what he should do or get next.
You know why I can imagine that so easily, right? I’ve done it. I’ve lived that way, and I wouldn’t if you have too. But Jesus is talking about “one thing” not one more thing.
Holy scripture speaks of the “one thing” in several places:
- The psalmist says, “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). Maybe the “one thing” is to be connected to something bigger and beyond ourselves, to know ourselves and our lives to be more than what we do or have, to recognize and trust that there is something transcendent about each one of us.
- Jesus tells Martha, “There is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:42). Martha was “worried and distracted by many things” (Luke 10:41). Her life was divided. She was here and there but not really anywhere. Maybe the “one thing” is about learning and paying attention to what really matters, being present and showing up to life, and becoming whole.
- When the religious authorities questioned the man blind from birth whom Jesus had healed, he said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9: 25). Maybe the “one thing” is about seeing with new eyes, gaining a deeper insight, living with a new level of consciousness, and awakening to the life that is before us.
- St. Paul says that when he and Barnabas and Titus met the leadership in Jerusalem, “[The leadership] asked only one thing, that we remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). Maybe the “one thing” is compassion, caring for each other, and recognizing that our lives are one body in Christ.
- In his letter to the Philippians St Paul writes, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13). Maybe the “one thing” is staying open to the future, listening for the call on our life, remembering that our lives are always in process, and trusting that no one moment, story, or event defines us.
Maybe the one thing common in all these one things is meaning; finding and living from a place of deep meaning.
I am talking about those “peak experiences” when something touches, resonates with, or speaks to us; when we say, “Yes, this is it;” when it feels like we’ve come home; when we have an insight and it forever changes our life; when we feel alive and connected to ourselves, others, and the world; when we wholeheartedly give ourselves to another or to what we are doing, when we lose ourselves in the moment; when we never want the moment to end. (David Steindl-Rast, The Way of Silence, 20-24, 39-45)
They are those moments you can’t let go of because they won’t let go of you. And the thing about the “one thing” is that your “one thing” and my “one thing” are probably two different things. They are unique to each of us.
What if you were the man in today’s gospel? What if Jesus said to you, “You lack one thing?” How would you respond?
Let’s try this. Take a mental inventory of your life, accomplishments, and possessions. What’s on the list? Be careful here. Just because the things on your list may not be the “one thing” doesn’t mean they are the wrong thing. They’re just not the “one thing.”
Picture in your mind each item you own, all the stuff. Recall all that you’ve done and everywhere you’ve been. What do you see? What comes to mind?
What is the “one thing” you lack?
What would offer you more meaning in your life today? In what ways might you make a difference in the life of another, not so much by what you do but by who you are? What would you need to let go of in order to become more fully and authentically yourself?
What is the trace of yourself that you want to leave behind in this world when you are no longer here? My hunch is that whatever that trace is, it just might be or point to the “one thing” for you while you are in this world.
“You lack one thing.” It’s not a criticism. It’s not a judgment. It’s not a deficiency. It’s a door opening to new life. It’s an opportunity with the God for whom nothing is impossible.