On Venn Diagrams and David Foster Wallace and the unsexy ways of Jesus

I realize that I risk cultivating a reputation for myself as an extremely nerdy person for saying this, but I love Venn Diagrams. I love the way the overlapping circles can tell you something that a mere written or spoken explanation cannot. I came across a Venn Diagram this week that may be one of my favorites yet.

It’s a Venn Diagram about matters of great significance – indeed, the sort of matters of great significance that we tend to contemplate on occasions such as baccalaureate.

It’s a Venn Diagram one might contemplate when one is considering the answer to that question we start asking kids as young as elementary school: what do you want to be when you grow up?

I think there’s some real wisdom here, some real truth present in these intertwining spheres. It is true that you can make a career out of something you do well that the world is willing to pay for.

And one of my favorite definitions of vocation has always been that it’s the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet. I love that this Venn Diagram takes it even further, identifying that if we are able to attain multiple layers of meaning. So if what you do is not only what you love and what the world needs but you’re also able to be paid for it – congratulations, you’re in the neighborhood of contentment.

At the very center of the diagram, there’s a tiny little square formed by the overlapping of all four circles. If you are able to do something you love that the world needs that you do well and the world is willing to pay for it, you can inhabit that tiny little square called bliss.

I was thinking about that tiny little square when I started to feel a little squicky about it.

I’m pretty sure that a lot of baccalaureate sermons and commencement speeches will basically be verbal variations of this very Venn Diagram, with well-meaning preachers and speakers charging the class of 2014 to go forth and find their bliss. It’s a nice thing to hear, you know? Go on now, go do important things and change the world and be super happy and while you’re at it, make sure you major in something that will enable you to get a lucrative job down the road.

The fact of the matter is this: it’s possible to inhabit that tiny little square. In fact, I’m fairly sure I do. I love what I do and I love that it matters and I love that I’m good at it and let’s just say I don’t mind at all going to the bank twice a month to deposit my paycheck.

But I think that it could be really easy to make an idol out of that tiny little square. To think that attaining anything less than everything is somehow a failure.

There is nothing wrong with studying to become an accountant even if what you really love is playing the saxophone, because you know what? You can do both, even if it means that you step from one section of the Venn Diagram to another come Friday at 5pm. There’s also nothing wrong with deciding that you love playing the saxophone so much that you’re willing to forsake the kind of salary your pre-med friends will make.

But the other reason I might not like this Venn Diagram as much as I thought I did is that I’m not sure it tells us what we really need to know about ourselves. Nor am I sure it is the most faithful guide for discerning who and what we should aim to be.

The Christian life is not about finding your bliss. Certainly plenty of Christians do, and that’s great.

Being a faithful Christian and finding your bliss are not mutually exclusive endeavors. But the goal of the Christian life cannot be personal satisfaction – even if part of that sense of fulfillment is rooted in acts of charity.

Consider this scenario. What would have happened if Jesus had sought that tiny little box of bliss?

I think we can be confident that he would not have ended up on that big heavy cross of suffering.

Death on a cross is about as far from bliss as you can get. Death on a cross is a cruel and unusual form of capital punishment – hardly a hallmark of achievement. And yet that cross that revealed, once and for all, the depth and breadth and height of God’s love for us.

As Christians we are called to follow Jesus. When we consider questions of identity and vocation and purpose – when we ask ourselves what we want to be when we grow up – our first and best answer is this: like Jesus. As Paul put it, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

And the mind that was in Christ Jesus was not a mind set on worldly success. Jesus lived for others. And as followers of Jesus, we are charged to do the same.

This doesn’t mean we too are destined for death on a cross. Certainly not literally. Yet it does mean that we must be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of others.

Sometimes this means being the one to call the police at a party, even though you might get yourself and your friends in trouble, because you think your friend might have alcohol poisoning.
Sometimes this means standing up to a bully, even if it makes you that bully’s next target.

Sometimes this means doing hard things, things that make us look foolish, because they are the right thing to do. But when you let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, you cannot stand back while another suffers. You cannot be selfish.

Several years ago, David Foster Wallace, the late literary giant, spoke at the baccalaureate service at Kenyon College. His speech was electrifying and challenging, honest and profane. He argued that the “freedom of a real education” is that “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.”

I’m redacting a bit, because David Foster Wallace was full of wisdom but also a bit long-winded. But he went on:

“...here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.

It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. 
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. 
…The so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Here's another way of saying it, I think:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

May it be so. Amen.

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