Recently, I gave a talk in Chattanooga, Tennessee at the Girls Preparatory School. The talk was more or less about how the world is in so much trouble that it needs every sort of talent and passion in order to help it.
In other words, if you care about world problems, you don't have to fit yourself into a mold that is someone else's idea of how to do good. You can figure out how to direct your own particular talents and passions in service of the problems that concern you most.
That's called becoming your real self to help the world.
After the talk, one of the students–Unsa Shafi–wrote to me. Unsa wanted to know how to do that–become her real self to help the world–but in concrete terms. Here is her letter (she gave me permission to post it) and, just in case it's helpful to anyone else, my reply.
Hey Mr. Beavan,
I have a question about how I could channel my passions into a career. I am a junior so I will have to begin to wonder what I want to do in the future. I am involved in organizations like Amnesty International and my passion is to help my brothers and sisters not only in Chattanooga and around the world. I was thinking about becoming a doctor and double majoring with international studies so I could work with Doctors without Borders in the future. However, I am also involved in the environmental club at school and am passionate about helping the environment. And when you came to talk, I began to reanalyze the decisions I made about my future to incorporate something about being environmentally friendly.
These are big questions that I don’t know if you can answer. But some guidance would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks once again!
Peace Be Upon You,
Here is my reply:
Dear Unsa Shafi–
I think it's hard when you're young to decide about what you want to do. Everyone talks about it as though you are making a decision that will last the rest of your life. I'm not sure that is true. I have a friend who started medical school at 52!
The other thing is, it is hard to predict what will make you happy. And if you choose things that don't fit your character, you will not be able to do them for very long.
The good news is that you already know one thing: that you want to be of service. That is wonderful. It is wonderful for the world and wonderful for you. It's wonderful for you because you already understand that you are part of something much bigger than you. If you continue to trust that and act upon, the understanding will grow and grow. Having a really big understanding of this will give you much comfort.
The next thing is, what are your biggest concerns at this time in your life? What is the thing that you find yourself over and over again coming back to in your thoughts? It may be a number of things. You may care a lot about child welfare and environment. Or you may care about elder health and politics.
Here is a process you may find helpful:
1. Take some time to write and write and write. Not for someone else to read. Just ask yourself, what are the many things I care about in the world? Then write as fast as you can. Tell yourself you won't stop until you've written four pages. Don't read it. Next day, do it again. Don't read it. Do it every day for a week or until you feel you are done. Then read it and make a bullet point list of the things that seem most important.
2. The next thing is finding out how you can work in service of your concerns in a way that makes you happy. I'm not sure that personal happiness is life's ultimate goal. I do know, though, that if you choose a route that makes you unhappy it can drain the energy that might otherwise be used to help others. So happiness is a kind of energy that, when we have it, can be used to help. Maybe it is not the ultimate goal but it is helpful.
So, what makes you happy?
Do another writing exercise. Don't write what you *think* will make you happy. Research shows that we are very bad at predicting our future happiness. So, instead, write about the things that in the past have made you happy and fulfilled. The kind of experiences that have made you forget yourself while you were doing them.
Do the same thing as you did for your concerns: write four pages as fast as you can each day for several days. At the end, read through and make another list of important bullet points.
3. Lastly, it might be good to write a list of what conditions you need to keep you comfortable in the world. Do you need a lot of money or are you ok with just having your basic needs met? Do you care if you are in hot weather or cold?
The previous exercise was about what you've done that makes you happy. This one is about what circumstances make you happy. Are you ok being by yourself or do you need people around you? Again, try to stick with what you've experienced about yourself for sure rather than what you think might be true about you. Write your four pages a day about this for a week. Then make the bullet points.
When you're done with all that, you have a list of he things your really care about, a list of what you like doing the most and the parts of yourself you like using, and finally the conditions you need in your life.
4. The next step is beginning looking for situations that fit all these criteria. When you've thought of the things that fit, you should get in touch with people who are already doing it. Then ask them whether it makes them happy and fulfilled in the way you want to be happy and fulfilled.
Remember though that you have to trust yourself throughout this process. It won't work if you write down things that you feel you should like or things that should make you happy. Don't write what you think your parents and teachers want. You don't have to show this to anyone. It is all private for you.
May you not require peace in your circumstances to have peace in your heart!