On Discernment: Three Key Questions

Fr. Michael Himes, Professor of Theology, Boston College

Fr. Michael Himes, Professor of Theology, Boston College

The following is a transcript of Father Michael Himes’ videotaped address to college students on discerning their lives’ vocations. It is reprinted here with permission from the author. Thank you to Boston College Intersections Project for providing  the transcription, and to Vis blogger and former Eli Lily Foundation vocations grant worker, Beth Eilers Sullivan, for securing this.

Three Key Questions

by Rev. Michael Himes

Professor of Theology at Boston College

Are you in the process of making a life decision? Are you trying to decide your major? Are you looking to find your place in this world? The following information focuses on college students, yet it assists anyone deciding on a career or a new way of living life to the full! Overall, as Himes would say, “How should we live our private and our public lives?”

Three key questions to help people make a decision on where their life is going:
1) Is this a source of joy?
2) Is this something that taps into your talents and gifts—engages all of your abilities—and uses them in the fullest way possible?
3) Is this role a genuine service to the people around you, to society at large.

Or to put it another way…
1) Do you get a kick out of it? 2) Are you any good at it? 3) Does anyone want you to do it?

FIRST QUESTION: What Gives you Joy? What is the Source of Your Joy?

What’s the Difference Between Joy and Happiness? It’s not a matter of whether this makes you happy or not because happiness is affected by many external factors (sleep, illness, hunger, loneliness, etc.). Happiness changes from moment to moment, day to day. Joy, on the other hand, is much deeper and much more central, it comes from within, and it’s a genuine rightness of how one lives one’s life.

Definition: Joy – the sense of the rightness of the way in which one is living one’s life.

We are not talking about satisfaction either—this can detract from joy. St. Augustine once said, “A human being is one whose heart is restless until it rests in God.” For example, Himes asks, “Is being a priest a joyful way of living life?” Augustine also noted, “Dissatisfaction (restlessness) is not a bad thing…indeed it’s the best thing about us.” It’s what constantly moves us forward, makes us grow, expands our horizons, and deepens our perceptions. It’s a very healthy, a very important, and a very valuable thing!

The 20th Century poet Marianne Moore claims, “Satisfaction is a lowly thing. How pure a thing is joy.” Contentment is an obstacle. Joy always pushes us forward. It’s a impulsion, a pressure to move forward, to do more (think Magis), to expend oneself more deeply, more richly, to open ones talents even more widely than one had before.

Again, the first question is, “What gives you joy? What is the source of your joy?” This is a question that you must answer. And yes, you may consult others; you may invite them to help you discern what is important to you (e.g., parents, teachers, counselors, etc.). Finally, no one but you can say this is my joy. You must discover this for yourself!

What have you discovered about yourself to this point? One of the best ways to get into the way a person thinks (e.g., a philosopher, a scientist, an artist, etc.) is to ask the questions, “What are your obsessions? What are the things you can’t leave alone?” Questions, concerns, issues that you return to over and over again because they fascinate you, they excite you, they really intrigue you, they lure you on, they get you to ask more and more questions. What are your obsessions? Where do you ask more and more questions? This is a very good indication that this is where your joy lies! Spend your life in this way. The most important thing you can do in your life is to come to a point where you can say that, “this is a genuine joy for me!” This joy may lead you in many, many directions, and it may lead you to further questions.
There is no point where you can say, “The issue of my calling is settled.” Vocations lead to vocations! It may raise other questions, and there’s no point where you can say that, “I do not have to ask any more questions.” The only time your vocation is settled is when you are settled (six feet under that is!). Look for the ways joy leads you forward. Look at the ways joy leads you on to other questions.

No one else can answer the question for you. They may be able to help you frame the question. In framing the question, one begins the process of answering it.

By all means consult others (e.g., your friend may say to you, “The times I see you most energized are when you are doing ‘x’ or ‘y’ or when you talk about ‘x’ or ‘y’), but remember, only you can finally say, “This is a genuine source of joy in my life!”

Happiness is distinct, but it’s not about life. Joy is the delight one takes in being dissatisfied. It is the deep delight that one feels in being called to something still before you—to a new decision and to a new way of living. Overall, we must answer the question, “Is this a source of joy for me?”

SECOND QUESTION: Is this vocation / this role / this profession / this way of life that you are considering something you are good at?

Does it allow you to tap your talents? Is it going to lead you to expand your abilities? Is it going to lead you to be ever more creative in the course of your life? This can only be determined by other people (e.g., I might have a great delight in being a brain surgeon and chopping off the tops of people’s heads! However, everyone I operate on ends up dead). Are you successful at it? Are you good at it? Other people have to tell us that! Other people help us discern whether or not we are good at what we do. This is enormously important because often we are not the best judges of what our talents and abilities are. Often, you do not realize that what you are good at is a service to others.

The things we are most comfortable at and the things we are most natural at are often our vocations (e.g., a great pianist doesn’t think the music they just played was extraordinary!). They simply do not realize that they are really quite remarkable. Only others can reflect back to us what we do and how well we do it. It’s so important to let other people review our talents with us. The humility to hear what we are good at and the humility to hear what we are not good at is an enormously important virtue regarding this vocational question. If joy is the quality to look for in answering the first question, then the need for a genuinely humble openness to other people’s directions and suggestions is central to answering this question.

Look for the task that will continue to stretch you. That’s all important in discerning that really vital vocation in one’s life. Are you continuing to grow? To help us discern what our talents and gifts are, we need a circle of friends (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.). The fostering of a community of friends who can be honest with us and whom we can genuinely hear, before whom and with whom we can be open and humble. That circle of friends is crucial to vocational discernment. What are you good at? Where are your talents? How might you still grow?

THIRD QUESTION: Does anybody need you to do it?

What does the community of people in which you live really need from your talents? Is the role you are considering a self-gift, a way of serving others? If no one else needs my gift, even though it may be a sense of happiness and joy to me, even though it may be something I am good at, it’s not my vocation (e.g., I may be an extraordinary shepherd, but the community I live in—the city of ‘x’—does not need a shepherd). It needs to respond to the needs of the community in which you live—where you find yourself.
The central issue in being a human being, and therefore in being a Christian, is what the New Testament calls Agape – a very particular form of love, a love which is self-gift, a way of giving oneself away to the “other.”

It’s the center of a Christian life and the center of being a human being. I’m convinced that when asking, “What I can do with my life?” ask [in addition], “How can I best give myself to the people around me?” The people whom we are serving must answer this question. We must hear from the people around us what they really need. What is it that they want us to do?

Once we know that this is a source of joy, once we know that this is something I have talents and abilities to perform, and I think that those talents and abilities will be stretched and expanded for the rest of my life in doing this work…

Is it something that people around us really need us to do? Does the community call us to this work? This is absolutely central in our consideration. All too often, we raise questions about vocational discernment as if everything depends on what I want and what I love when in fact, at least as important perhaps more important in making a good vocational decision is what do the people around me need? What is it that the community requires, that I am able to supply? We need to be able to listen to others about their needs.

St. Thomas Aquinas says the crown and summit of the whole of ethical life is what he calls caritas (charity), what the New Testament describes as agape (self-gift). Aquinas means all the other virtues play into caritas (self-gift).
Two key virtues are crucial to give oneself away: wisdom and courage. Wisdom is more than knowledge and wisdom preeminently knows that the other is other.

Many of us live our lives as if our lives were a star in a motion picture movie in which we have the lead role—everyone else plays a supporting role. For example, “Himes the movie!” Other people have a role in my film, my life. Yet, we need to see others as other people!—not to project on them what we would like if we were in their shoes because we are not in their shoes.

Definition: Courage- enables us to risk giving ourselves to people who may not always appreciate the gift.

There’s nothing more devastating that being an unrequited lover—one who extends himself or herself for others and is not appreciated. We have to be willing to hear what others need and to give ourselves in response even when our attempt to respond may not be appreciated. Wisdom and courage are absolutely necessary in living a genuinely agapic life.

Have you discerned what the people around you really, most deeply require? And have you got the courage to respond to that need? It may be I have discovered my joy. It may be I know what my abilities are.

Now ask, what do the people around me need? hope for? and desire? What is our deepest and most fundamental vocation? We all have multiple vocations (e.g., I [Himes] am a priest, an academic, a teacher, a writer, a friend, an uncle, a brother, a citizen, etc. Private, public, professional).

One vocation embraces all our other vocations: to be a human being. We are called to be as intelligent, as responsible, as free, as courageous, and as imaginative, as loving as we can possibly be! All of my other vocations, all of the many ways in which I live my life, must contribute to that one all embracing demand, that one constant vocation to be fully, totally, absolutely as human as I can possibly be. One way into that is to ask the questions:
1) What gives you joy?
2) What are you really good at?
3) What do the people around you really need?

[1] The following material outlines key points from the video, “Three Key Questions,” starring Michael Himes, a project of Intersections and Boston College, produced and directed by Andrew Deal. 

6 Responses

  1. [...] who they are and what they are about at the Vocation Fair, I am reminded of Fr. Michael Himes’ Three Key Questions* talk he first gave at Boston College, my alma mater. Fr. Himes gracefully puts discernment around [...]

  2. [...] and in their relationship with one another. Their connection is one of joy! Joy according to Fr. Himes, “Is the sense of the rightness of the way in which one is living one’s [...]

  3. [...] and questions are a great way into our vocations. Our deepest vocation is to be human, therefore what places, people, environments lead me to my best self? We need to support each [...]

  4. [...] work on vocation we draw upon again and again. I posted the transcript of this talk last spring here. But now you too can have the joy of listening to Fr. Himes’ podcast, and hearing his voice [...]

  5. [...] we commence the Fall Following the Spirit Discernment Series. What are you discerning? How does joy play a part in your discernment story? J.O.Y. (just observe yourself), and note when you are deeply [...]

  6. [...] These three questions come from Theologian Michael Himes of Boston College, (This is a really good link, it’s a transcript of a lecture he gave about the three questions–if you are wanting to make changes in your life, click the link.) He adds this in regards to discernment: One vocation embraces all our other vocations: to be a human being. We are called to be as intelligent, as responsible, as free, as courageous, as imaginative, and as loving as we possibly can be. All of my other vocations, all of the many ways in which I live my life, must contribute to that one all-embracing demand, that one constant vocation to be fully, totally, absolutely as human as I can possibly be. [...]