I recently had a spiritual conversation with someone who has been going through a major crossroads in his life. It was a fruitful conversation, and clearly his journey for almost a year now has led him to a moment of choice.
The day after, I came across this passage and e-mailed it to him: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue… as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”—From “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl
This is perhaps the most basic of choices, to dedicate our life to a course—a path, a journey— greater than oneself.
I have shared the following story in a previous article, but it is good to repeat it here for two reasons. One, it is told now in a different context. Two, it is Ignatian month, July.
In 1996 I asked Fr. Catalino G. Arevalo, SJ, to talk to our Ateneo de Manila high school faculty on what it meant to live out the Ignatian spirit in one’s life. He began with this definition: “It is to set one’s life within the horizon of a dream larger than life.” It is a choice to dedicate oneself to something greater.
This Sunday’s Gospel on the Parable of the Sower and the Seed leads us to the question of choice. Perhaps in a roundabout way, but I argue that choice is the main point for reflection in today’s Gospel. We know the parable: same sower, same seed, yet different outputs.
We often hear the comment of how two persons, often siblings, growing up in the same family, the same environment, yet so different from each other. This brings us deep into the nature-or-nurture debate.
This is also the underlying issue or lesson this Sunday. We are told that what accounts for the differences lie in the soil or the recipients.
However, as we become more aware of the dynamics of the human mind and psyche, as we progress in psychology, neurology and genetics, all the more the question begs to be answered: nature or nurture?
The growing consensus is both: nature in some aspects and nurture in others. But we break the impasse with choice. Choice integrates nature and nurture, but it also liberates us from these and makes us go beyond nature and nurture.
When I look back at my own journey, I am both my nature and my nurture. After years of formation, I realized I am very much the DNA and genes of my family—the downside of which “scared me” and “drove me into” the priesthood. I am the care, the love and the support I have received through the years. I am also my failures and my betrayals.
But what integrates all these into a whole imbued with meaning is choice, or the choices I have made.
The first important choice I made was to be a teacher. In it I found the meaning of the pain and the suffering growing up in a broken family with little adult guidance, especially the guidance of adults with affective connections. My students who were going through a similar experience inspired me to make this choice.
As they shared their pain with me, I started to understand mine. I was prepared for that moment when I “entered the chaos of the other person and helped them make sense out of it.” I discovered there was compassion in me, especially for those who were going through the same chaos, and I made sense out of mine. I found the meaning and chose to dedicate myself to it; to teaching that meant loving others into excellence.
It is about choice. The different types of soil are not the types of persons in the world, but the choices we make as to what kind of person we will be; the meaning and mission with which we will live our life.
The choice to be a teacher is what I refer to as my first and one great love. After 34 years since I made this choice, I go back to it. I come full circle and affirm the choice. Now I am certain that this is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi referred to when he wrote: “One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.”
Last Sunday, I shared my journey with one of the country’s best screenplay writers. I told her that I felt I was integrating for the final stage of my journey and it felt I was home. I was home, back to my first and one great love—to teach and to love others into excellence.
The Parable of the Sower and the Seed reminds us that we need to constantly make choices.
A growing ‘yes’
Yes, God’s grace is freely and generously given, but we must say “yes.” It is not a once-and-for-all “yes.” It is a growing “yes” as we journey. We falter but recover to make the choice again.
Robert Johnson wrote in “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden” that the meaning of life lies “not in the quest for one’s own power or enhancement but in the service of that which is greater than oneself.”
When we get to this moment of choice and choose to say “yes” again to our first and one great love—a “yes” that is wiser and more passionate to love and love greatly—we are home.
Nature and nurture, these are the seeds the sower sows. If it is true that there are no accidents in God’s plan, then, indeed, it is choice, the choices we make, that will make meaning out of all things in our life and reveal God’s plan. This makes us bear fruit, “fruit that will last” as it is rooted and grounded in God’s love.