Joseph Anderson

A simple question

“What do you want?”

Such a simple question, but one we can spend our whole lives trying to answer.

I have a friend who is a spiritual director, and is perhaps the sanest and most open-hearted follower of Jesus I know (like me, he is uneasy with the problematic label “Christian”). In a conversation last week he said that he tells his directees, “there is only one question Jesus has for you: ‘what do you want?'”

This astonished me for two reasons. First, what a beautiful, open, loving image of Jesus to share – how completely that turns on its head the many theological contortions I have been exposed to! But also: “what do you want?” is exactly the question I heard myself, in the pivotal moment in my journey toward doing healing work. For me the messenger was different, coming to me from a sacred animal in a shamanic trance-vision. But the question was the same – and it’s the question that’s important.

“What do you want?”

You don’t have to watch much reality TV to have witnessed the immediate, obvious, and superficial answer to that question: “I want to be rich, famous, loved, important, validated in the smallest and least enlightened definition of myself.” And by the way “I’ve worked so hard for this and I totally deserve it!” To be fair to the reality TV contestants, most of us, on more than one occasion, have come up with a similar approach to putting a stake in the ground and making our claim on life: “I want the universe to conform to my image of myself.”

But with any luck we soon find out that there is more to it than that. With any luck, after we have experienced the grace of being knocked flat a few times, we begin to realize that the hard part of the question “what do I want?” is understanding who the “I” really is.

The great 20th century Catholic writer Thomas Merton makes a useful distinction between the true self and the false self. The false self is the version of ourselves that we construct in service of the limited needs and understanding of the ego. What the false self wants has little to do with what we really are and what we really want.

Though that authentic “I” goes by many names, my preferred term is “soul”: that deeply true core of your being, which was given your body and mind, your family, your circumstances, your limitations and possibilities, in order to grow and give in just the ways that you need to.

When that higher, more complete and purposeful part of yourself is listening to the question – then it’s possible to begin to hear and respond with genuine answers, answers that come from the heart.

But what happens to that answer? What becomes of our intention when it comes from a deeper place of knowing? This is another difference from the more simplistic approach the false self takes: when that “I” wants something, the form and consequences of the wanting are very clear and specific (and the tantrums and pouting over less-than-satisfactory are, also, very clear and specific). But what we might call soul-based-wanting leads to something more subtle than that, and more rewarding. The intention becomes a seed that, once planted within us, has the freedom to grow into what it needs to be. And this is a gift, because however wisely we express our intentions, they can only extend as far as our limited vision. The actual outcomes stretch us far beyond that! And as we develop the habit of rootedness in and responsiveness to the soul’s wisdom, these unexpected turns in the road become occasions for rejoicing and wonder. We can remain open to the new adventures that await as we respond anew each day, once again, to the question the Wisdom of the universe poses to us: “what do you want?”

It really does take our whole life (all of our time, all of our energy, all of our being) to answer.