For years now I have been telling students who come to see me about “career opportunities” that the most important thing is to enjoy what they are doing: when someone enjoys their work it is a signal that they have chosen the right career and that they are doing well at it. I tend to give the example of the great soccer players, who are those who most enjoy themselves when they make a goal, or the example of the many chefs who are truly happy when they see that their customers call their meal “finger lickin’ good”.
St. Josemaría wrote in Forge that “the happiness of Heaven is for those who know how to be happy on earth. St. Catherine of Siena said that “all of the road to Heaven is Heaven”. With these examples I wanted to reject a dark vision of life that sees it as a vale of tears and laments. Suffering and sorrow–which of course everyone has in their life–are the shadows that make it possible for the light to shine more brightly.
We human beings are made in such a way that we enjoy those tasks that occupy all of our attention, to the point that we hardly notice as the hours fly by. It doesn’t matter if this activity requires considerable effort. For example, caring for children, which so often demands our entire attention, can be tiring, but it can also fill our days with meaning. A former student, who works for a well-known British consulting firm,publishes each week in Facebook the adventures of her
first son, born only a few months ago. “Tired days, but precious ones… I don’t want him to grow!”. And the following week she posted a fascinating article on maternity that ended thusly: “They should have told me that becoming a mother changes everything, and that I would never want to go back and visit my former self, not even for a second. They should have warned me that my life was at the point of acquiring a wealth, a beauty and a fulfillment that are so tremendous that when I look back I would think: ‘Poor me. Before I just never knew’”.
We all understand her well. Choosing to have a child and being able to give it all the attention that it needs is something wonderful, able to fill one’s existence with joy. The same can be said of all the tasks that are involved in serving others, since a full life has much to do with caring for others. Our contentment, our joy, springs up spontaneously on seeing that we are wanted and loved, on seeing that our life has meaning beyond ourselves.
In recent weeks I have been reading Dorothy Day (1897-1980), the American social activist who is in the process of being beatified. Many things about her life and writings have impressed me, but here I wanted to mention just one thing that is relevant for what I want to say in this post. Those who wanted to become part of the Catholic Worker, the movement that she had created, were told: “Begin with the place you live: identify the needs of your neighborhood and put the works of mercy into practice”. (…) Choose the work that gives you the greatest joy, and don’t be afraid of changing as you follow the call of the Spirit”. Choose the work that gives you the greatest joy: what wise counsel!
Along the same lines, I remember the counsel given more than 30 years ago by Blessed Álvaro del Portillo, then the Grand Chancellor of the University of Navarra: “Put people to work on things they enjoy–he told us during a meeting of the Governing Board. You will see them work better, with greater efficacy, and they will also enjoy what they are doing”. I thought it was an extremely valuable piece of advice; we might call it a matter of common sense, but I had never heard it before.
Last week I had the occasion to visit Cuba in order to attend a small congress in Havana. I took as reading material the recent book by Magdalena Bosch, La ética amable [Friendly Ethics] (Eunsa, Pamplona, 2015) which I really loved, starting with the title itself. It is well thought-out and wonderfully written. What I want to emphasize is how, in that little book where the author unpacks Aristotelian ethics, it becomes clear that happiness is identified with one’s own excellence, with the personal effort to be better and do better: it is not just “the best activity of the soul”, but in addition “it tends to generate positive emotions as a result” (p. 52). And a few pages further on the Catalan philosopher adds: “The good can be addictive, because performing it produces joy” (p. 55).
This is the key. Turning our entire attention to others, or to the job we have at hand, is able to brighten our lives and fill them with joy. Enjoyment is the unmistakable signal that we are doing what we should be doing, and that in addition we are doing it well.
Pamplona, December 3, 2015
I am thankful for the help of Jacin Luna with illustrations, and the commentaries of Gonzalo Beneytez, María Rosa Espot, Ángel López-Amo, Beatriz Montejano and Marta Torregrosa.