Are you doing it?
Author, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Someone I love once said something heartbreaking to me.
We were driving in the car somewhere as the sun was about to set. I, a passenger able to stare off into the distance, must have said something about the warm glow of light.
She responded by telling me it was her favorite time of day. In a moment of stunning vulnerability, she told me it was the time of day that reminded her she was supposed to be living.
It makes me ache still to remember, years later, but I can relate to this place she was in.
It seems exceedingly easy to let ourselves get to a place in life where we’re going through the motions, or just surviving, or numbing ourselves through an endless variety of medication. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been through something devastating, sometimes not. But I think there are times in all of our lives when we need a reminder that we’re supposed to be living.
Years ago, an idea came to mind. The idea was to take an epic road trip through the United States with one purpose: to ask random strangers what makes them come alive.
I would still love do this. I figure, since I know what it’s like to be numb or on autopilot, and how amazing it is to finally be shaken out of slumber — others might, too.
I imagine asking all sorts of people this question — the barista at a coffee shop, the cashier at a gas station, the person waiting for their traveling partner at a rest stop. I wonder at the types of responses I’d get, both physical and verbal. I mean, what kind of a question is that to ask a random stranger?
“Hi there, how ya doing? So, what makes you come alive?”
How would you react? How would I react? Who knows how this road trip would pan out. Maybe someday I’ll do it, and we’ll find out. But this idea of asking ourselves what makes us come alive, and then going and doing it? I can’t seem to shake it.
I don’t have any expert advice on how to figure this out, by the way. I suppose some people can recognize from a very young age what makes them come alive. It may take others longer to figure it out. Still others may not be able to, or want to, choose a single thing.
Personally, I refer to a line in a movie I’ve never even seen, for my own guidance on the matter.
In the movie Chariots of Fire, Olympic athlete Eric Liddell’s character says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
Liddell, played by Ian Charleson, is speaking to his sister in this scene, responding to her concern that he is neglecting God’s purpose for his life by focusing on running.
I’ve always loved these words, since the first time I heard them. As a person who has faith in God, I can completely relate to this struggle. The struggle to know what your true purpose is in life, as a Christian, can be maddening. Let’s break down Eric’s words.
“I believe God made me for a purpose…”
Yes, I believe this, too. I believe God made all of us for a purpose, and I also believe it doesn’t need to be as complicated to figure out what that purpose is, as we sometimes make it.
“…but he also made me fast…”
I am definitely not a fast runner, so in place of fast, I might insert something like: “good with words” or “a lover of dance”.
“…and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
This is my favorite part.
Imagine what the pleasure of the creator of the world must be like. If God is the God I think God is, then God is infinitely good. And an infinitely good God’s pleasure must be mind-blowing.
And when I do something on this earth, something even so seemingly minute as twirling around on a dance floor — to think of this act as correlating with God’s pleasure, is beautiful.
To me, these are the moments of pure joy in my life. So what makes me “come alive” and what makes me “feel God’s pleasure” are the moments when I feel nothing but joy. These are the moments of bliss when all the noise in my head stops, and I am so totally in the moment, I could literally die happy.
For me, this is when I’m dancing. Be it a night out with a girlfriend getting funky to hip-hop music, two-stepping to country music, learning steps to a dance in a foreign land, or letting the music sway me into a free-style dance in the privacy of my own home: dancing makes me come alive like nothing else.
Dance is not the only thing that enlivens me. Writing this, for example, also makes me come alive. Creative journaling makes me come alive. Traveling, being in nature, good conversation, discovering beautiful music, moments of grace — all of these things make me come alive.
Given the chance to travel around and ask others what makes them come alive would, without a doubt, make me come alive. Given the chance to travel around and learn about different dances from people who come alive when they dance, and then see if I can learn their dance, too? Ahhh, I can’t even imagine how alive I’d come. These are two very real dreams of mine.
But it could be anything for anybody. It could be woodworking or healing sick people or baking pie. It could be attempting to solve problems through math, technology, or political discourse. It could be serving on a team, studying ornithology, or playing the harmonica.
What about you? What is it for you?
What makes you come alive? Are you doing it?
And if you are not doing that thing, or those things, regularly in your life: what is stopping you?
Sure, this isn’t as good as it would be if we were sitting in a diner somewhere, talking. But it’s still a valuable exchange for me. If you’re willing, please take my question seriously. You can make my dream come true, a little bit at a time, with your response.
What Makes You Come Alive? was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.