Which way should I go?

That isn’t the only question human beings ask, but it is a common question, and given who I am and what I do, it is a question I hear most every day in one form or another. Born from a complex of questions about the meaning of our lives, about the nature of vocation— who am I? what is life about? what is my life about? what should I do with my life? — it is one that every one of us asks along the way.

For the last couple of days I have been in a very beautiful place on the face of the earth, Playa del Rey, a beach town located about halfway between Santa Monica and Torrance, just a few miles north of Los Angeles International Airport. The sea breezes blow from morning to night, and the sun shines almost all the time— and for someone like me, the gift of biking along the beach is just about as good as it gets, mile after mile after mile on a curving, concrete pathway, hearing the ocean roar, watching the sky change through the hours of the day.

But even as I biked, breathing beauty in as deeply as I could, I kept thinking about all that I had heard in the Praxis Labs gathering, which is what brought me here. A remarkable effort to nourish entrepreneurial hope and hard work, each year a dozen people and their projects are chosen, who then become a learning community over the next months. A week in the spring, a week in the summer, and a week in the fall— day by day refining their visions, iron-sharpening-iron as it must be, meeting more practiced leaders along the way, listening and thinking and praying together —in their different ways each one a thoughtful, serious, motivated person who has seen a need in the world, and has imagined an honest way to address it.

The whole world is theirs. One started an organization focused on the ache of obstetric fistula problems among women in Ethiopia; two have stepped into the seemingly intractable troubles between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples; another has taken into his mind and heart the long suffering of prisoners in Africa; a husband and wife have responded to the educational hopes and heartaches of Latino immigrant children in Atlanta; someone else has been slowly drawn into the messiest messes of the world, wanting to alter the conditions that shape economic, political and cultural life; another has chosen to enter into the social complexity of Shanghai, working to create a network of committed people who care about the flourishing of their city; two others are working to bring a neighborhood in Denver out of generational poverty into more healthy and whole lives; still another has responded to the emotional/social/educational/cultural gaps in post-apartheid South Africa; one has taken the social and economic implosion of Detroit, and block-by-block is working to bring renewal; a young urban professional in Washington, DC, is working to connect people like her to the aching needs of the city; and two women from Lagos, Nigeria have developed an educational program for younger women who are left out of the entrepreneurial marketplaces of their city and society.

These are mostly thirty-somethings, with some exceptions, and each person is marked by an unusual maturity. They see the pains and problems of the world, and have chosen to be implicated, for love’s sake, in the way things turn out. Each one wrestles with the meaning of their lives and labors, wanting to understand the depth and range of what vocation means for them. Not a romantic among them— they have seen too much of what is not the way it’s supposed to be —but every one a dreamer of what might be, a man or a woman choosing to step into history, willing to give themselves away for the sake of the others, being and becoming signposts of the way the world ought to be.

Wherever I go I keep the eyes of my heart attentive to what is beautiful, sometimes incredibly, wonderfully beautiful… I am always looking for the wonder of the world. So as I biked along the beach, seeing the sun set in all of its Pacific Ocean glory, it was a gift, a grace that keeps me going– because at the same time, often on the same day, I hear the groans of the world, which is a wound in my deepest places. Always complex, always messy, always tragic, the weight of the world wears me down. Simply said, it is the way it is in this now-but-not yet life that is ours, from the most personal aches of life to the most public wrongs of the wider world.

Yes, both together, all day long… the very beautiful and the very broken.

Kyrie eleison.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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