how to listen to your life


Ohio Northern University applied for -- and received -- a grant to bring me to campus for three weeks during the fall semester.  I'm guest-lecturing about international aid, health communications and public health.   I'm helping to guide a cohort through the process of writing their stories.  And I'm working with the chaplain -- who is emphasizing Vocation as the theme of this school year. On Sunday evening, I met with a dozen students in a small, carpeted room behind the chapel.  It's a sacred space, and everyone takes off their shoes before they enter.  We each grabbed a cushion and sat in a circle on the floor.

The chaplain had asked me if I thought I could use writing/creative prompts to help students discern what direction they were heading, and what their vocation might be.

"I think so," I said, during our lunch meeting last week.

Over the next few days, I thought about the questions that have helped me figure out where I'm going, what I'm doing, and what my life is about.  I thought about the questions that have helped me make choices when I was at a crossroads in my career.

I also did some reading about vocation, and learned that the word comes from the Latin word vox, which means voice.  Most writers say that vocation is the call, or voice, of the Divine, giving you a unique assignment to fulfill with your life.  But I think that discerning vocation involves listening not only to the Divine, but also to your own life, your inner spirit.

As I sat on the floor with the students, I gave them blank paper and pens, and asked them to write -- or draw -- the answer to the following questions.  In less than an hour, we had worked our way through the questions, and most of the students expressed a sense of clarity, purpose and passion.

For those of you who are feeling confused or lost, wondering what your unique contribution can be to our beautiful, broken world, I would invite you to carve out an hour of your day, settle into stillness and silence, take some deep breaths, then write or draw your answers to these questions.

Listen to your life....and see what your spirit is saying!

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1) What 3 words would others use to describe you?
     This question is helpful because it helps you to understand not only your personal perspective of yourself, but also others' perspective of you.
2) What 3 skills/abilities do you have?
     Think about your personal "tool kit" of abilities you were born with, or have cultivated, that many other people can't do or don't have.
3) What 3 activities give you joy?
     This helps you tap into your core -- what makes you come alive, what makes you tick, what gives you pleasure, what makes life sweet.
4) What 3 skills make you most useful to those around you?
      This question helps you identify what makes you unique, and what gives you a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
5) What would you do for 40 hours/week, even if you didn't get paid?
      (Hint: It can't be sleeping, eating or watching Netflix!)  Personally, I would write even if no one read a word or paid me a cent, because it's what I love to do.  I've also volunteered in medical clinics internationally because I love to alleviate pain and help people become well, no matter if (or how much) I'm compensated to do it.
6) What 3 occupations would you not want to do, no matter how much you were paid?
      If you have a strong aversion to something, it's probably a hint that it's not your personal vocation.  Personally, I would never want to be a morning drive-time DJ (because I'm not very conversant early in the morning and it would drive me nuts to have to talk non-stop), I would never want to teach pre-school (I love kids, but the thought of having dozens of them in a classroom all day would be exhausting and overwhelming), and I would never want to be a garbage collector because I'm very sensitive to smells.
7) If you could solve one personal problem, one domestic problem, and one foreign problem, what would they be?
     The problems that grab your attention are a big hint as to where your time, energy, attention and abilities belong.
8) What 3 news topics make you most sad/angry?
     Here's the deal.  A lot of the time, when we think about finding our purpose and calling in life, we think about positive emotions.  But discerning your vocation isn't just about what makes you tick; it's also discovering what you're passionate about by realizing what ticks you off.  Listen to your positive AND negative emotions.
9) Write your personal mission statement in one sentence.
     For example, here's mine: I want to use medicine and writing to bring healing to people who are in physical, emotional or spiritual pain.
I hope that's helpful!  I'd love to hear what clarity and realizations you had as you contemplated these questions and took the time to listen to your life! And I'd love to hear what steps you take next to live out the story you were born to tell.
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