In the wake of commencement season, there have been a number of articles discussing the cost of education, employment prospects, and ultimately, whether it’s really as wise and noble as we’ve believed to heed the oft-given advice to “do what you love.” Questioning whether this idea is “wisdom or malarkey,” some propose that to “do what you love” may be little more than the “most perfect ideological tool of capitalism,” shrouding realities of worker exploitation by “[disguising] our own labor to ourselves” under the guise of passion, within the context of “love.” Doing what one loves, therefore, emerges as self-perpetuating delusion, at worst; crippling foolishness, at best.
The thing is: I heartily, lovingly, passionately disagree.
In high school, I was introduced to the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Like so many before me, and since, his words, particularly the philosophy that he espoused of “following your bliss,” resonated profoundly and have stayed with me from the moment I first encountered them.
Do what you love. Follow your bliss.
Wisdom, or “malarkey”?
One of the central concerns at hand, here, is that many of the arguments on this issue cite the absolutely inaccurate idea that to follow one’s bliss is to subscribe to a life of hedonism that disregards one’s connection to a world that is both broader and deeper than the individual self. This could not be farther from the truth.
For Campbell, the idea was rooted in the Upanishads, steeped in a tripartite description of “the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence”: being, consciousness, and a rapturous bliss. And with this in mind, Campbell thought: “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.”
Doing what you love. Seeking out your rapture. Following your bliss. It’s not sunshine-and-rainbows, it’s not a cushy gig.
It’s not about that.
Following your bliss is not an endpoint. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement of what is, and it’s a starting point; it’s the promise of a journey, an assent to what can be.
And that process is not an easy one. Following your bliss isn’t easy. There are many easier things than to follow your bliss.
Because following your bliss likely means sleepless nights, disrupted routines, nervous stomachs, chronic migraines, immense debt, crippling doubt, panic and upset and mayhem, both within and without. Following your bliss likely means not following your not-bliss, even when your not-bliss might be safer, might mean a steady income and security, if not fulfillment. Following your bliss is a shot in the dark, a leap of faith, and for all that you prepare for it, for all that you follow to the letter some prescription for “success,” there are no guarantees.
And we are taught as a culture to treat with skepticism that which cannot be guaranteed.
Therefore: to follow your bliss requires courage. To follow your bliss is to accept a challenge, to engage in battle against what is expected, against what is sure, in the hope that passion will spark opportunity: that where there is love and dedication deep enough to buck the status quo, there will always be worth—that enthusiasm itself breeds creativity and resourcefulness and a wealth of experience that will allow us to forge paths as we come to the wild, to recognize the opening of doors where we’d never thought to look.
To follow your bliss means to remember your bliss when you falter, when fear encroaches, when too many sleepless nights and too much worry wears you down: to follow your bliss means to let yourself remember and to be reminded, within community—not selfishly, not in isolation or self-deluding naïveté, but within connection, with boldness and belief in an end that is larger, richer, that is worth the struggle not only for the self but for a greater human whole. To follow your bliss means to risk failure—partial, temporary, or absolute—in pursuit of something innate, something nameless, but something that feels right in a way that supersedes rationality, that defies classical reason, and if that deep resonance of soul-deep vocation contradicts what the numbers say, what the probabilities of finance and quantifiable “success” indicate on the charts and the tables and the graphs, then that is only logical: apples to oranges, really. The contexts are not fruitfully comparable. To force one to make sense of the other is where the illogic of the enterprise begins.
And we’re not blind. We know all this. The study of theology wasn’t a route we undertook because we thought it would be wildly lucrative, or unquestionably sound with regard to money. Academia on the whole is not a pursuit for the faint-hearted, particularly in the current economic climate. There are always naysayers who suggest more “reliable” routes to take. We know this.
We accept the terms with our eyes open. We know that to do what we love may mean risking all that we know. And just because there’s fear in that, doesn’t make it worth abandoning; doesn’t mean that the potentials there are not exquisite, even in their ache.
It was over lunch with my undergraduate advisor (who is not a fan of Joseph Campbell) that it all seemed to coalesce. As we talked over Thai, and I expressed my concerns about the future—in academia, in theology, in general—he told me I’d reached not a dead end, but a fork. Down one road was greater (though not absolute) certainty, stability, existence. Down the other: risk, uncertainty, but possibility.
Down the other was not mere existence, but living.
Down the other was my bliss.
And I’d been letting the naysayers, letting the fear of failure, of the unknown cloud the fact that my bliss is where it’s always been, down a road that I can’t see the end of, that’s not about logic so much as what feels more right than anything else I do, or have done.
And if to take that path is foolish, well: it’s been said that we’re all of us fools in love. To do what we love by necessity, then, requires some foolishness, if foolishness is in truth an unwillingness to give in to the fear of what we cannot see or predict, if foolishness is the refusal to allow the rules of others to govern our realities, to convince us that our vocations are not worth our energies, or struggles, our conviction.
If that is foolish, then I’m glad, I think, to be a fool.
On the way home from that lunch, The Avett Brothers came on—their lyrics were gorgeously-timed: one foot in and one foot back // but it don’t pay to live like that.
And it’s true: the world is made better for well-placed passions, for taking dedication and making newness from its momentum. Both feet; all in.
So until you cannot any longer, I implore us all (myself included): do what you love.
“…If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
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