Please forgive me for making a side allusion to Hall and Oates and their hit, Your Kiss Is On My List. It’s a catchy song that is embedded permanently in my psyche, for reasons that will be undisclosed. In a recent dive back into my Jungian pool, I was reminded of a phrase that ruled the day for a nano-second, right around the time I was ordained as a priest, mid-eighties. It was “Follow your bliss!”.
It sounded like something Yoda might teach a young aspiring Jedi. As I plunged headlong into my pursuit of priesthood, with little certainty that it would work out, it felt like I was following my bliss, whatever the hell that was. I felt the passion for a life grounded in the Spirit, making a difference in the world. It had the sense of “bliss” to it, not at all a logical career path that might have been proper and expected, and approved by my dad. Could I make a life that was “spiritual” without going into a cloistered monastery? Since I had discovered celibacy to not be “on my list of the best things in life”, could I blaze a trail of my own, keeping the monk in me alive while experiencing a broader scope of life, the kind I experienced on a Las Vegas turnaround? I had taken a few roads and flights chasing, if not following, my bliss.
The phrase about bliss was coined by Joseph Campbell, a professor of comparative religion and mythology, as he was interviewed by Bill Moyers in a PBS series entitled The Power of Myth. As Moyers pressed for clarification of the deeper meaning of life, Joe mentioned teasingly “follow your bliss!” That simple phrase formed his advice to college students he was teaching. During advisory sessions with his students on every fortnight, Professor Campbell would try to lead them in identifying their deepest interests, and then encourage them to follow. Stay with it, he would advise, and don’t let anyone throw you off that path. I don’t remember having an advisor with that kind of Jedi wisdom. Rather, just tallying up my hours for my major so I could satisfy my requirements and still graduate early.
To press his point, Campbell told a story of a pregnant moment when he overheard an exchange while sitting at a restaurant. A family of three was sitting to his side. A young boy, Campbell described him as “scrawny”, around twelve years of age, was sitting, looking at his food, as young people sometimes do when they are not crazy about the fare of the moment.
The father, still dressed as a businessman just home from work, sternly tells his young son, “Drink your tomato juice.”
And the young boy responds directly from the budding-adolescent script, “I don’t want to.”
The father escalates the encounter, raising his volume and sharpening his tone, “I said, drink your tomato juice!”
The mother jumped into the fray, “Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.”
The father looks at her, and says, “He can’t go through life, doing what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to do in all my life.”
For Campbell, this was a powerful moment that was revelatory as to this man’s personal predicament, but transparent to a fate shared by many who are captured by “the system”. The system can be anything: a business, the corporation, the university, a prescribed career path, one’s social setting, and might I add, the Church. It can be a cultural pattern of life that is embedded in society that one unconsciously “buys into”. And why not? The seduction of money, power, and self-worth is a powerfully seductive cocktail of identity.
A system is an organization, formal or informal, that operates as a culture of assumptions, values, taboos, and rules that offer you a sense of identity. You “belong” and enjoy the gift of identity and value it confers, although the price entails checking at least a piece of your individual freedom. The value of being a part of something bigger than you is high, and some people will go to extreme lengths to “fit in”, including checking your mind at the door. The promise offered is that your worth will be conferred by your connection, but the cost, undisclosed in the moment, turns out to be high.
Most of us make this expected connection, which helps you find your way in the early days of life, providing guideposts along the path, like the white slash marks on the Appalachian Trail. And this works in the first half of life as you seek to master your particular craft, whatever that happens to be. But, at mid-life, a couple of wayfaring strangers begin to knock at the door of your soul. One is Death, who whispers, or yells, that He is coming sooner than you think. Your time is limited, in fact is ticking down, you are one day closer to your death. Cheers!
The other uninvited visitor is not so rude as to taunt you with an unpleasant reminder. His mode is more subtle as he asks an important but troubling question: is this worth it? Is the life you are living worthy of your best energy and time? Or, should you make a change? These are existential questions that drill down to your core, the heart of your being. Some simply can not answer, for it would cost them too much. Others nibble around the edge, playing with the questions, going to a seminar or retreat, just to say you did. But some, some take a bite out of the apple, diving deep into the questions.
I have worked with all types of folks who have hit this mid-life moment. Popularly, it was called a mid-life crisis, which prompts some to buy a Corvette, buy a ’59 Stratocaster, or look for that trophy spouse. It’s called a “crisis” and that oddly gets it pretty accurately, as “crisis” literally implies a decision has to be made. Specifically, it begs the question: do you want to continue on the path you are on, or do you want to make a course correction?
Sometimes, the person finds that he/she only needs to do what he/she is doing but just in a better way, one that includes more of the inner Self that had been left behind, or repressed in service of being a part of a “system”. This “shift” can be made incrementally, using the freedom of some experimentation that allows one to “try on” some new, fresh ways of being without selling the farm. I have assisted several attorneys and physicians “reframe” how they were doing their work. They self-describe themselves as “sick” of being a doctor, or lawyer, as they wistfully remember a dream deferred. My tack is to playfully wonder if they might be able to keep being a doctor, or lawyer, but to do it in a way that took their whole being more seriously. Many wound up not having to leave their profession, just adjusting the direction a bit differently. I am happy to report that many found their bliss, as one lawyer stated it, he rediscovered his bliss, the very reason he pursued his deepest value, justice, as he applies his learned skills in working with the poor. In the wake of recent events, that feels like a hell of a good choice.
Other times, the press for change is so strong that the old “system” is felt to be too stultifying of one’s true Self, demanding a more radical action. Complete severance of ties may be contemplated as one looks to the horizon for a new direction, a new life. This deep disruption is demanding on the person, not to mention those whose lives are attached the this person’s life structure and commitments. But I am a witness to the “resurrection power” of bringing life to the dead when bliss is pursued and a non-authentic self is abandoned. I sometimes refer to this process as “truing up the Self”, bringing one’s being and doing into alignment with one’s bliss. ‘Miraculous’ is a word that comes to mind. ‘Scary’ is another word that seems to apply, begging for the exercise of courage that had seemed to have been hibernating in a domesticated lull.
Living an inauthentic life is all too common. I once used the word “zombie” to describe this condition, preaching on my home court of the Cathedral in Buckhead, long before The Night of the Living Dead. The reaction, positive and negative, was swift, telling me that I had struck close to the bone. It prompted many life-transforming dialogues, which is part of my particular and peculiar bliss.
As I said, this normally comes at mid-life. Jung defined that as the point at which one was aware that the time you had left to live was less than what you had lived. For some, this is a simple math problem, for others, it dawns when the black balloons turn up on one’s birthday. For me, it was a feeling down deep that I could not shake or deny.
Back in the day, 35-40 was the normal marker for mid-life, but this seems a bit artificial to me these days. Some people are wired with expectations for several careers, not just the “one career path”. Many young people who consult with me are planning on several phases and “acts” of their career, with absolutely no notion of staying with one company throughout their life. It will be interesting to see how such a planned path will go and the fruits and issues it may yield.
And, many seniors, who might be considering retirement, are creatively pondering a new path, sometimes pursuing more explicitly the “bliss” they might have missed. One friend, trained as an engineer, has longed for more ways to express his deepest passion for artistic expression. After some planning, he went all “Johnny Paycheck” on his firm, telling them to “shove it”, politely, of course, and is launching a new career that promises to give him more agency in how he spends his time as well as opening up the scope of his canvas of expression. You should see his eyes dance as he dreams and plans. Life abounds. Spirit is released. Bliss is experienced.
Following your bliss isn’t just a slogan for hipsters. It’s an attitude. It’s a mindset. I saw my mother find that in her painting as she moved into her senior years, having relinquished her teaching of biology to raise her two boys. That was a common path in the “system” of her day. When the empty nest liberated her time and energy, she courageously leaned into life with enthusiasm picking up on her lost love of art. She thrived. She grew. She found her bliss.
You are never too young, never too old to tackle this work of finding your bliss. For Joseph Campbell, he tried to get his students to wrestle with this goal right from the get-go. For others, it may come late, prompted by a nagging, gnawing intuition that there is more. But we are wired for the experience of bliss.
Unfortunately, you can be too tied to a style of living that seems to make it impossible to take risks, to try something new on for size. I have seen people dig deep for courage and take the leap of faith into the unknown future. It’s amazing and inspiring to witness, and I have had a front-row seat for many persons’ flight into bliss. It’s been a gift to me as I try to do the same.
To close, I have a story that was told to me at a recent spiritual retreat, trying to make the point that Joe Campbell made forty years ago. It really isn’t a story at all, though it is implied. A tombstone in Boston reads like this:
Here lies Effie Jones. For her, hell held no fury. Born a virgin, died one too. No hits, no runs, no errors.
I hope you laughed as hard as I did. Life is not about playing it safe, fearfully avoiding doing what one wants to do in your heart of hearts. Rather, it is an invitation to a dance of joy, realizing you will fail and fall along the way, but trusting the capacity to learn, rebound, and leap into a new way of being. This “way of being” leans into the future as you celebrate the journey, savoring the taste of life. That feels like a glimpse of bliss to me.
How about you?