“You were born to change this life. You were born to chase the light.”
I must’ve sung these words to my children a thousand times. They come from a song by the band Cloud Cult. Since my wife became pregnant with our oldest child, our boys have heard these words in utero, sung in the living room, or at bedtime over and over again. It must’ve taken root, because some nights, after a long and hectic day, as we settle into their beds before sleep, our oldest son will whisper, “sing the ‘you were born’ song.” You were born to change this life. You were born to chase the light.
There are a group of plants that literally chase the light. They are called “heliotropic” plants. Their flowers move from east to west each day, following the path of light and warmth from the sun, only to return in the night to start all over again. Think sunflowers, poppies, and marigolds. Physically called toward the source of their nourishment, these plants cannot do anything but naturally chase the light. They were born to do it.
But I am not like those plants. I don’t automatically chase the light. Far from it.
So many people in the world of leadership, spirituality, or education can offer the advice that we need to find and hold onto our “inner compass” in life. It’s easy to talk about that inner compass as if there’s some reality that always correctly points you to your true north, is always available, and is easy to follow. Find your light, and everything is settled. If that were true, being a person would be easy, or a lot easier. But in my experience, being a person is far from easy.
Why the Challenge?
The poet David Whyte puts it this way: “as human beings we are the one part of creation that can refuse to be itself.”
Unlike the flower, I can (and do) refuse to follow what calls me all the time. What about you?
Maybe you recognize this situation. I wake up early with an intention for the kind of person I want to be. I write it in bold letters in my journal, and by 9:15, I already feel off course. I can tell as the words are coming out of my mouth that they aren’t what I want to say. Like me, I assume that you often know what is “best” for you or feels “right,” but struggle to do it.
One of the early Christian writers, Paul, put this particular challenge of the human condition this way: “I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.” (Romans 7:19)
This difficulty within us has been explained by some theology as evidence of the “Fall,” of an insurmountable failure of the human condition.
It’s been described by Freud as the result of repressed emotions and experiences. A battle between the unguarded reality and passion of our “id” and the moralizing inner critic of the “super-ego.”
Some evolutionary psychologists explain our challenge with chasing the light with the idea of “evolutionary mismatch.” Basically, this is the notion that our human bodies and minds mostly evolved to meet the environment of the world as it existed tens of thousands of years ago. We are set up, they say, to live in a world where spicy hot Cheetos weren’t cheap and abundant, Netflix didn’t auto-play, and you couldn’t find a new sexual partner through an app.
Knowing the light, and chasing it, aren’t always the same thing. The light sometimes is a sense of what truly matters – a deep calling or vocation, a sense of what is most meaningful and good that give us nourishment and life. It calls like the light of the sun that warms us or the star that guides our way. Other times, the light is more like a beacon from a lighthouse, a warning in the storm that steers us clear of harm – “be careful,” it says, “this could wreck you.” Whatever the explanation for its difficulty, if you have trouble automatically chasing the light, it likely means you are a normal human.
First, what helps me is to know that we are not like those plants, and that’s OK. We are less like the plant drawn effortlessly toward the light of the sun, and more like the sailor straining to see the lighthouse beacon which will keep us on track and away from the rocks and destruction. We can fall asleep, lack attention, refuse to follow the right star or head the lighthouse warning. This is our freedom. For humans, chasing the light takes practice. I don’t know why, but it does. There is a grace that comes in embracing that. It means that my failures and yours aren’t the end of the story.
Second, it helps to know what lights are worthy of chasing. Not blind faith, but to know which stars guide our way, which lighthouses keep us safe, and which suns will feed our lives. Chase that light.
When I feel off course or out of touch, certain things have a great track record of bringing me back. Sitting in the quiet of a morning before the sun rises and listing for the “still small voice,” is one of those lights. Another is paying deep attention to my children and family. The regular practice of my religious community, or connection to the soil beneath my feet – these lights have kept me safe and fed when I needed it most.
What about you? What challenges do you face in “chasing the light?” What gives you a sense of grace and patience along the way? Which suns warm you the most and are worthy of following?
Keep chasing the best you can. Give yourself and others the most grace possible, because being human well takes practice. “You were born to change this life. You were born to chase the light.”