Let’s imagine a scenario that may be all too familiar to many of us. It’s about living the American dream.
John had always dreamed of becoming a doctor. He loved biology in high school, and received his degree in the same field of study in college. He graduated at the top of his class from medical school and went on to become a top doctor at one of the best hospitals.
John met and married a wonderful woman. They had children, and the whole family went to church every Sunday. He was active in his community and, by all accounts, seemed to be living a full life. John was doing exactly what he wanted to do, and living his life exactly the way he had always imagined.
And yet, at night, John would lay awake, unable to fall asleep. He couldn’t shake the feeling that had been gnawing inside him, slowly chipping away at his happiness. Moreover, he couldn’t answer the question that was staring him right in the face: Why was he so unfulfilled?
John had everything he wanted and was doing everything he thought he wanted to do. Yet inside he felt empty. Every day the feeling grew more noticeable. He felt as if he was still waiting for his life to begin and thus the cycle of dissatisfaction began.
I’ll be happy, thought John, when I buy a bigger house. He bought the house, but it wasn’t the answer.
I’ll be happy when I get that job as chief resident at the new hospital, he thought. Again, he got what he wanted, but still was feeling empty.
I’m working too hard, John finally decided, and that’s why I’m so unhappy. I just need to retire, that’s when I’ll be happy.
John finally retired, in his large house after a grand career. He took a look at the wall in his study – a shrine of hanging accomplishments that any person would be proud of. And, indeed, John was proud. But looking back on his life he still only saw emptiness and meaninglessness. What was all it for, John asked himself.
A Much Too Common Theme in Our Society
John’s story is a much too common, familiar theme in our society and culture. Many of us probably recognize John, if not in our own life then maybe in someone we know. Our society is one where many people walk around seemingly having it all, and yet are never satisfied. The thirst for more is never quenched. The feeling of being unfulfilled never ceases. We attempt to fill the emptiness with more and more things – the next technological advances, the newest fashions, the best gadgets – and yet emptiness grips our culture like a parasite grips its host.
It’s probably the single biggest reason for the high sales of self-help books. It’s also probably the reason for a concerning increase in depression and anxiety, and a growing dependence on medications to try and mask the pain of emptiness.
And yet, we continue to give the wrong answer to the question, why am I unhappy? Like John, we say, “I’ll be happy when…” But maybe we are asking the wrong question.
The question should not be about unhappiness versus happiness. Rather, it should be about meaning. Moreover, the answer is not about our job or career-defining our identity, but rather the unique purpose each of us has in living out God’s call for us. At least, that’s what Deacon and author Thomas Winninger believes and expounds upon in his new book, Your True DNA: Discovering God’s Gift Within You.
Meaning and Purpose
Winninger, who himself went through a similar situation as the fictitious John, has spent years helping individuals find meaning and purpose in their lives. Meaning and purpose, he says, starts with the unique gift God has given each of us as individuals.
“We should not define ourselves by our functionality,” says Winninger. “In other words, we should not define ourselves by our career. Instead, we need to define ourselves by our gift. A gift is something we can apply in all areas of our life.”
God created each of us for a unique reason with a unique purpose and gift. When we use that gift, we find purpose and meaning in our lives because we’re answering God’s call – we’re living according to His plan for us.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you…” (Jeremiah 1:5)
But how do we find that gift?
We need to look within ourselves through reflection and contemplation, two things our current world is not very good at doing, says Winninger.
Reflection and Contemplation
Today, it’s easy to find ways to distract ourselves from reflection and contemplation on God’s Will. From technology to our jobs, we find ways to fill our days with noise. Even in the silence of prayer, we are easily distracted. We recite the words or read Scripture without stopping to reflect on the words we’re saying or reading.
Says Saint Teresa of Avila: “Vocal prayer must be accompanied by reflection. A prayer in which a person is not aware of whom he is speaking to, what he is asking, who it is who is asking and of Whom, I don’t call prayer, however much the lips may move.”
We must find the time to truly reflect on and contemplate what God is calling us to do with the gifts He’s given us, with the life He has given us. It’s only on turning inward, says Winninger, that we can come to know His Will, at least to the extent that our humanness allows us to understand.
“’Late have I loved you…you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you…’” quotes Winninger of Saint Augustine.
“[Saint Augustine’s] point,” says Winninger, “is that we are all tempted to look everywhere in the world for the answer to self-worth, meaning, fulfillment, and joy, but in truth, the answer is inside the reality of the Gift and talents [God has given you].”
Living a fulfilled life
It is in living out God’s purpose for us – in using the gifts he has given us – that we can live a fulfilled life that praises God and is worthy of His praise.
In his meditation on discovering God’s purpose in life, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman said, “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission…”
Each of us has a unique calling or mission, divinely set from God. We may live in the world and engage in temporal affairs, but we should do so according to the plan of God so that we may work for the sanctification of the world.
“In this way,” says Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Lumen Gentium, in regards to the laity’s vocation, “they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity…It is their special task to order and to throw light upon these [temporal] affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.” (Ch. 4, Lumen Gentium).