Follow Your Bliss
Many years ago, I participated in the Ordination of a close friend. After the Service, in the receiving line, a man passing through commented on something I had said during the service. His comment intrigued me, so I sought him out during the reception afterward and we chatted at some length about our different interpretations of a particular teaching of the theologian, Paul Tillich. (Those were the days when people talked about the interpretations of various theologians.) Finally, realizing that I was clearly out of my league, I asked him where he taught theology. He said, “O, I don’t teach – not in a school anyway. God forbid. No. I’m a gas station attendant.”
I learned two things in that conversation. First, that an intelligent person does not need academic degrees to prove it (and perhaps the converse, that people with academic degrees are not necessarily intelligent). Second, I learned about a man who had followed his bliss.
What was important in this man’s life was the world of ideas – and particularly ideas about ultimate meaning, about spirituality and religious commitment. He wanted nothing of the ivy-walled life or any of the hoops he would have to jump through to live it. He devoted his life to thought, study, and conversation and paid for his daily bread by pumping gas.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. My friend and I had just graduated from a theological school in which most of the students had followed their bliss from one occupation or another into preparation for the ministry. One of my classmates had been east coast marketing director for Shell Oil; another had been Public Relations Director for the Hood Milk Company; and another had been a staff writer with the New York Times. All these people had examined their lives, discovered an absence in them, found them wanting in spiritual depth and power, and had taken the courageous inward quest to find and follow their bliss. They gave up what the world called “success,” for another kind and level of personal heroic victory.
“Follow your bliss” is a teaching of the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell. What he meant by ‘bliss” was that intuitive, deep-down way of knowing what is right for us, what is good for us, what makes us “happy.” He emphasized what we ourselves know on that intuitive level – that we will not be truly happy, we will not have a sense of personal fulfillment, unless we are following our bliss, unless we are doing with our lives what we know we want to be doing, being how we know we want to be, living by the values we know are our ultimate values.
Why don’t we follow our bliss? Well, for one thing, it can be dangerous. Following our bliss – in the way of another of Campbell’s metaphors – is a hero’s journey and the hero’s journey has deep forests, dragons along the way and much to overcome. For us, of course, the dragon is a metaphorical beast. Our dragons are images of our anxieties, roaring dread and breathing emptiness. We have invested a great deal in how things are for us, in how we got to be where we are, in being what others expect us to be. Most of us are almost totally persuaded that there is nothing else we could do, no other way that we could be.
The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or who have listened only to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for. So, one of the dangers we face is that we will stop listening to our bliss for so long that we will forget the sound and the feel of its call. We will no longer feel its urgings. The greatest sadness will be that we no longer remember what it was we once dreamt of or what that vision of possibility was that once filled us with passion for the future.
One clear cost of following our bliss, of course, could be material, financial. It could be very expensive to follow one’s bliss. Many of my theological school classmates had been earning a great deal of money in the work they gave up to study for the ministry. The Shell Oil Marketing Director had lived in one of those pseudo-Tudor homes in a Connecticut suburb with all the trimmings and perks of his position.
In seminary, he and his family lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the campus. After theological school and until his death, he and his wife worked a farm in Vermont where he served the same small country parish for thirty years. He and his family paid the cost of following their bliss. They gave up the material symbols of success in exchange for happiness and fulfillment. It was a good deal. But not everyone can make it.
You may remember story in the Christian Scriptures of the rich young man who came to Jesus asking to be one of his followers. Jesus told him to go home, sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. The young man went away – very sadly, the Bible says – and never came back. He couldn’t follow his bliss. He couldn’t pay the price.
Joseph Campbell tells an interesting story about the courage of following one’s bliss – interesting because the story suggests New Jersey as the promised land. Not many stories we hear take that point of view. Anyway, Campbell says,
…let us imagine ourselves standing on this shore, let’s say on Manhattan Island. We are sick of it. Fed up. We are gazing westward, over the Hudson River, and there, behold! We see Jersey! We have heard a good deal about New Jersey, the Garden State; and what a change that would surely be from the filthy pavements of New York! There are no bridges yet: one has to cross by ferry. And so we have begun to sit on the docks, gazing longingly over at Jersey, meditating upon it; ignorant of its true nature, yet thinking of it with ever-increasing zeal.
And then, one day we notice a boat putting out from the Jersey shore. It comes across the waters, our way and it docks right here at our feet. There is a ferryman aboard, and he calls, “Anyone for Jersey?” “Here!” we shout. And the boatman offers a hand. “Are you completely sure?” he says, however, as we step down into his craft. And he warns, “There is no return ticket to Manhattan. When you put out from this shore you will be leaving New York forever. All your friends, your career, your family, your name, prestige, everything and all. Are you still quite sure?”
The boatman, you see, guards the way to our bliss. But, unlike the angel at the biblical gates of paradise, he is not there to keep us out. More like the Eastern gods who guard paradise, he’ll help us get there. But he wants to make sure we know what we’re doing. He wants to be sure we have the courage for the trip. We hear the boatman’s voice when we feel the stirring of our bliss and most of us, most of the time, turn back to the city – to the canyons of convention.
I’ve made several trips across the river myself. And, who knows, maybe I’m make one or two more before my days are done. Some years ago, while living and serving a church in Waltham, Massachusetts, the home of Brandeis University, I received a letter from the University. On the basis of my Masters work and a couple of articles I had written and at the urging of a Department Director, I was being offered the opportunity to take a PhD – on full scholarship and with a minimum of course work! That was a siren call! No more recalcitrant church committees! No more drafty parsonages. No more haggling with affluent purse-holders about a martyr’s salary. And no more having to explain what a “Master of Sacred Theology” is.
But, my bliss was somewhere else. I can still remember standing in the kitchen, holding that letter, having made my decision not to accept the offer, and, because every decision involves a loss, sobbing, deeply for the loss of what my bliss had cost me in what the world would have called my success.
“The way to find out about you happiness,” Campbell said in one of the taped interviews with Bill Moyers, “Is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy – not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy.” “This requires a little bit of self-analysis,” Campbell said. “What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what I call ‘following your bliss.'”
Victor Frankl was the psychiatrist who, while in the Nazi death camps, devised a system of psychotherapy he called “logotherapy.” “Logotherapy” is, in Frankl’s terms, “Meaning therapy.” Frankl said that he had learned in the death camps that one who had a “why” for living could live with almost any “how.” He had also learned, he said, that, when it comes right down to it – “It” being death – what most people value has nothing to do with money or material things. (Elizabeth I is reported to have said with her dying breath, “All my possessions for one more moment.”)
In his therapy, Frankl sought to lead people toward what it was they really wanted to do with their lives and to what it is they really wanted to be. One of his favorite devices, which often worked, was to have people imagine that they were about to die. “You have one minute left,” he would say, “Thirty seconds, fifteen seconds, five seconds – now: what is it you have always wished you had done with your life?”
One of Frankl’s patients, an ambassador, suffering from severe depression, became a Maine woods guide and was still a happy Maine woods guide when I met him. A stockbroker became a journalist. A phobia-ridden housewife became a congresswoman. Some of Frankl’s patients didn’t change how they earned a living. But they did change what they did with their lives. And that’s important to understand.
Following our bliss does not necessarily mean chucking everything and turning totally way from our lives. If it does mean that, then that’s what we will need to do if we really want happiness and fulfillment and we’re willing to take the journey for it. But following our bliss may also mean transforming our ideas about what our lives are all about, about what’s important, about what happens to the hours of the days of our lives into years.
The ideal, of course, is to earn our living by following our bliss, to have our job and our “vocation” – our “calling” – be the same thing. I feel blessed that I have spent most of my days getting paid for following my bliss.
Not many in this age are so fortunate.
What is needed in this age is the shift of consciousness in which people come to be able to distinguish between their jobs and their vocation – between how they earn their living and how and why they live. That man I spoke of had a job pumping gas. His vocation was reading theology. The job paid for the groceries. But the job was not his life and was not the meaning of his life.
Pay attention to what makes you truly happy, Campbell said. Maybe your job does not make you truly happy. And it’s all well and good that some people have chucked it all and taken to the woods, like Thoreau, to get away from lives of quiet desperation. Obviously, not everyone can do that. But everyone can examine what makes them truly happy and think about how they can have more of that, how they can do more of what makes them happy – how they can follow their bliss. “The life which is unexamined,” Plato said, “is not worth living.”
Most of us do what our neighbors do, most of us value what our neighbors value. Consequently, much of what we do is not worth doing. So many people spend much of their lives doing what they have to do to earn a living and waste the rest. The hours pass into years and into regret. It is when we focus on what makes us really happy, that we discover where the values for our lives really are, we discover where our bliss is. Then we know that we have a choice – to follow our bliss or not.
One of the reasons why Joseph Campbell has continued to stir so much interest through the years is that, in speaking to us of our personal hero’s journey, in talking about our personal mythologies – our stories – and in urging us to follow our bliss, Campbell has reminded us of something we may have almost forgotten in the anxious rush of modern life and that is that we really do have choices. If we are willing to confront our dragons – the metaphor for all that is not our bliss, for all that stands between us and our bliss – then we find the freedom to fulfill, enrich, and transform our lives.
I suggest this: That you take a quiet time – make a quiet time, create it out of the chaos – and, in that quiet time, think about what makes you truly happy, sort it out from everything else, focus on it, bring it forward into the world. And that, we are reminded, that which we re-discover makes us truly happy, that is our bliss and we are free to follow it. That way lies true “salvation.”
And this is not only for our own dear sakes. It is one way of saving the world, for Joseph Campbell said this:
In saving yourself, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes. The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth. No, any world is a living world if it’s alive, and the thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find in your own case where your life is, and to be alive yourself.