Missions and Missionaries

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” — Maya Angelou
Title: Maya Angelou | Photographer: Susan Mullally Well | Source: Burns Library | License: CC BY NC-ND 2.0
Title: Maya Angelou | Photographer: Susan Mullally Well | Source: Burns Library | License: CC BY NC-ND

On a recent biking trip on the Creeper Trail in Abington, VA with the Road Scholars, I learned that Barbara Kingsolver lived in the area and owned a restaurant there. Serendipitously, our group had dinner in her restaurant, and I was delighted to see all of her books displayed there. I am a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver and have read all her books. I am especially fond of her best-selling Poisonwood Bible, which begins with the arrival of the Price family in the remote Congolese village of Kilanga — a tiny cluster of mud houses devoid of all the ordinary amenities of life back home. In Kilanga, there are plagues of killer ants, hordes of malaria-carrying mosquitos, unseen parasites, lions, tarantulas, and snakes.

In this terrifying world full of Nature’s perils, political and racial tensions further exasperate the difficulties of living there.

Nathan Price, the missionary in the story, has taken on the mission of converting all of the village people to Christianity.

Kingsolver brilliantly describes how Price’s hubris and selfishness become more and more apparent. Price wants to baptize the village children in a crocodile-infested river; he wants the village people to abandon their traditional beliefs; and he wants desperately to convert them to his religion. He becomes completely oblivious to the welfare of his own family and ends up sacrificing the life of one of his daughters to his self-righteous beliefs. Price’s stubborn concept of religious rectitude brings misery and destruction to all. It is, in short, a story of missions and missionaries run amok — not unlike what happened in the hilarious Broadway musical Book of Mormon.

Having said that, I happen to think missions are very important in life. For example, my completely non-religious mission is to:

Title: Michael Barrier, George Takei, Star Trek TOS, "This Side of Paradise," 1967 | Author: Classic Film | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC 2.0
On Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise were missionaries of sorts. (Title: Michael Barrier, George Takei, Star Trek TOS, “This Side of Paradise,” 1967 | Source: Classic Film on Flickr | License: CC BY-NC)
  1. help people grow and succeed, and
  2. to elevate conversations and consciousness

Just to clarify, a missionary is primarily defined as a person who is typically sent by a church into an area to evangelize and/or provide service work. A missionary, however, can also be a person strongly in favor of a set of principles who attempts to persuade others.

A mission, on the other hand, is an important goal or purpose accompanied by a strong conviction.

For me, helping people grow and succeed is a driving passion. My work as an executive coach is aligned with that mission. I also have several pet projects I support, e.g. Calm Clarity, Energy’s Way, Grand Traverse Land Conservancy, and the Tao Te Ching Institute. Those projects are labors of love. I derive great meaning from contributing to the success of the people and projects with whom I am engaged.

To me, helping people grow and succeed means creating the conditions and developing the capabilities that enable them to deal positively with the ups and downs of life.

Hopefully, the end result is a happier, more productive person, but the real trick is to learn to find happiness and/or meaning in whatever life may bring. In short, to develop the ability to smile on the world no matter what happens.

Some of the key conditions that enable us to deal positively with all events are: inner peace, a calm and still spirit, a feeling of oneness, a clear perspective, and an inner space filled with loving kindness. When these conditions are present, we tend to be more patient, sensitive, and gentle, and life’s challenges are handled with ease and grace.

Some of the key capabilities that enable us to deal positively with all events are: mindfulness, interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, analytical skills, systems thinking skills, and logical planning skills. When these capabilities are present, we tend to get desired results more efficiently and effectively.

With these conditions and capabilities, it is more possible to view whatever comes our way with equanimity and acceptance.

The possibilities in life are grand, the probabilities are grim (things rarely turn out the way we plan them), and the realities can be a grind.

Creating these inner conditions and developing these empowering capabilities give us a better chance of realizing our positive possibilities, reducing negative probabilities, and dealing positively with the ups and downs of life.

The second part of my mission is to elevate conversations and consciousness. I admit to being bored by banal banter. I try to avoid it whenever possible. If I happen to find myself in a situation that requires some social graces, I try to find at least one person who is interested in engaging in meaningful conversation. There is so much noise and negative news these days that I find it refreshing to discuss great books or timeless ideas. I’m always thrilled when I find people with similar interests and passions.

Elevating consciousness is a more ambitious mission and not one that I am likely to realize. My posts are primarily intended to elevate consciousness, but I admit that it’s a Quixotic and Sisyphean mission. Still, I never tire of chasing windmills and pushing rocks up big hills.

My main goal in this post is to encourage you to think deeply about what your mission is. It may be religious, or not. It may be achievable, or not. The idea is to make every effort possible to align our behaviors with our mission.

Without a mission, we go through life randomly at best, and meaninglessly at worst.

I know I have very different world views from many people, including family members, but I admire people who have strong convictions and a sense of purpose. I think it’s important to respect differences and bridge divides. The world is much too polarized to do otherwise.

I do believe that religions have been a divisive force in the world, so I’m am not a supporter of church-sponsored missions whose goal is conversion and conformity. When I encounter people who are about to go on a mission, I encourage them to focus more on inquiring and learning than on teaching and converting. On the other hand, many religions have been amazing sources of service and support for people in desperate situations. Oy, such dilemmas we face in healing family wounds and global problems.

I guess my best course is to work on my own conditions and capabilities so that I can deal more positively with the ups and downs of life. I may never be a religious missionary, but I will stay strongly committed to my mission.

I think Maya Angelou may have said it best: the mission in life is to thrive; and do so with passion, compassion, humor, and style. What’s your mission? What gives you meaning in life?


Originally published at Perspectives & Possibilities.