Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

Life As Response

It is time to move away from the grief theme, although I may return to it in the future as needed. Remember, this blog is about life, which happens “not necessarily in that order.” Today, the theme is around living as a response versus living as a reaction.

In my teen years (age 14-19), I pursued a religious vocation, entering first the “aspirancy” and later the postulancy and novitiate of a wonderful religious order, the Sisters of Christian Charity. Those were, of course, formative years. I still have dreams, occasionally, in which I find myself back in the convent, torn between the desire to live out that commitment and the fear that I have (again) made the wrong decision. I still have many wonderful — and sometimes painful — memories of my time there, and the education I received — academic, spiritual, and emotional — had much to do with the person I have become.

Over the years, I told my story of “jumping over the wall” as reflecting my strong individualism; the nuns did not have room for someone so uniquely me, I said. The nuns wanted me to become something other than what God had made me in the first place. And those statements aren’t necessarily false; they just don’t tell the whole story.

It took me many years and much reflection — and a few reunions with old classmates — to finally understand what lay behind that final conversation with the directress of novices. She wanted me to know that I could stay and succeed but that I was going to have to do something differently; I responded that I did not think I should strive to become a different person than the one God made me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret my life, not the years I spent in the convent and (for the most part) not the life I’ve lived since then. But I’ve come to realize that what actually happened, what made it impossible for me to stay there and succeed, was that I was living in reaction rather than in response. My life was about doing the daily activities of an aspiring religious, because those were the activities of an aspiring religious. I followed the rules because they were the rules of religious life. I participated in the rituals and ceremonies because they were the rituals and ceremonies of religious life. The actions themselves, rather than the reasons for doing them, seemed to be at the core of life.

Sister Judith, with whom that final conversation took place, saw and understood that I was missing the vital spark — the spark that comes from living one’s life in response to something greater than oneself, rather than simply reacting to the expectations one is shown. I don’t know whether she was not quite able to explain fully what was missing, or whether I cut her off at the pass with my answer. I do know that within a very few days of that discussion, my mother had wired funds for a train ticket, I had packed up everything I owned in that world, and I was saying goodbye to my friends and sisters before heading for the train station in a pastel plaid skirt and white blouse that had been found for me.

Once home, I quickly re-entered “the world,” as we used to call everything outside the convent gates, and when my first desire, nursing school, proved to be out of my reach, I found myself an office job and started my “new” life.

I like to think that over the nearly 50 years since then, I have learned at least a little about a lot of things in life, and perhaps a lot about a few things in life. But I believe the most important thing I have learned is that living a life of response is vital to peace and foundational to any sort of success.

Living a life of response, you see, starts with a choice of what I will respond to. Living a life of response involves listening for something outside my own will, desires, and reactions. Living a life of response involves making conscious choices based on that listening, rather than reacting to what life puts down in front of you and using that as a reason (dare I say  excuse?) for the outcome.

When I think about interpersonal relationships in terms of a life of response, a new clarity dawns. When I live out of reaction, it’s all about me — what does another person’s behavior, attitude, action do to me, mean to me? Whether it hurts me or makes me feel good, my actions are reactions to that “what about me?” way of living.

When I live out of response, it’s all about the other person. What does another person need? What does another person’s behavior, attitude, action tell me about them? How will my response be received? And my actions then grow out of my response, not out of what’s in it for me.

When I think about events in terms of a life of response, the clarity grows. One really cannot respond to an event, because events have no real life of their own. One can only react to them. So, if I choose to live a life of response, I must find that larger-than-me something that I’m going to listen to, and use it to choose, in turn, how I will behave. And again, the life of response stops it from being all about me and pulls me out of myself. Events do not shape me; events alone

Back to my convent days: Had I understood that my perceived vocation required me to live a life of response, rather than a life of reacting to rules and conventions, my life over the past 40+ years would have been quite different. That’s indisputable. What is unknowable is what my life can and will become, as I put new insights to work and respond to something much greater than me. That’s a work in progress, and today I can only imagine!

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