One with the Nous: The Life Work of Human Being

Feast of Righteous John Cassian the Confessor

On_Human_Being_square.jpgA SWEET FRIEND said to me the other day, “I feel like spreading happiness is my life’s work.” I love that! I know her to be a naturally happy, encouraging person. For her to feel that spreading happiness is her life’s work is one of the most self-aware statements she could make. She DOES spread happiness. From the core of her being radiating outward, people feel put at ease and more optimistic when she is around. She has a lovely soul.

A bit later, she backpedaled, rephrasing her gift of happiness to be a mission statement.

A few days later, another friend asked me to help her make a mission statement for a group we hoped to form. Suddenly, it seemed as if everywhere I went I was confronted with mission statements. My soul just BALKED! I did not understand why.

It soured me.

By education and experience, my entire professional history has been in areas where I work for and with people. I’m very familiar with the underpinnings behind the idea of mission statements: Organizations DO need to have a purpose; an express, over-arching goal. They need to express that goal both to the people who labor for and with them. Mission statements speak to goals. They speak to products. They inform decision-making.

I think I know what rubbed me the wrong way. Setting the phrases “life’s work” and “mission statement” against each other Mission_Statement.jpghighlighted a dichotomy that I always hold in tension, but never think about. 

We are human beings, not human doings!!! (Clichés exist because they are TRUE.)

Because a mission statement speaks to a product or a goal, it is necessarily temporary. My friend who wanted to create a mission statement for our group was right. A finite group of people, working toward a certain outcome, at a certain place and time—that’s the place for a mission statement.

Happiness is so at the core of my friend’s being that I believe she was more correct when she said that spreading happiness is her life’s work. 

During an introductory talk for the Worship section of catechesis at the Orthodox Christian Church I attend, an instructor asserted that “we live our lives from deep inside ourselves; from a place we call the nous.” In the Philokalia, the nous is understood to be a person’s deepest center, the heart, the eye of the soul. In English, it has sometimes been (unfortunately) translated into “intellect,” philokalia.jpgbut the nous is much more than intellect.

During one of my graduate classes, the instructor asked each student to write three to five things we would want people to remember about us when we were dead. I dutifully wrote down the intents of my deepest heart, my nous; the things that I so deeply want to participate in throughout my life.

We were then given five minutes to write down everything we do each day.

I was shocked and dismayed to see that the two lists had almost nothing to do with each other.

Our busy lives pull and tug at us. They make demands of us that are utterly necessary: How will I keep a roof over my head? Food in my belly? How will I relate to my family and others that life puts in my path? Our lives also try to demand of us things that are utterly UNnecessary: Be a consumer of these products. Participate in popular media. Be all things to all people at all times, and whatever you do, chase the idea of being relevant. Have a utilitarian view of life. Deny your need for silence, nature, beauty. Constantly ask, “What’s in it for me?” Demand to be entertained at all times.

I don’t want to live another day with my lists so foreign to one another. 

I hope that when I die, my life will have added up to more than the sum total of my mission statements. I hope that I will have lived out of my center, my nous. I hope that I will have found my life’s work and done it—been it—well.

And of course, it doesn’t matter at all if my friend understands her spreading of happiness as her life’s work or her mission statement. She lives from the heart, from the core of who she is. We all should be so lucky, so self-aware.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in her world reap the deep benefit. Rather than being soured, we live in the sweetness that she exudes. May we all come to be as she is: one with her own heart, her own path, her own nous.

Nyleen Lenk reads, writes, worships, and teaches people shorter than she is. To her, the most important thing is wonderment; and this is why she hides her life with Christ in God. She lives in Wichita with her husband the photographer, her stepsons the gamers, and her cat who is channeling Marmie from Little Women.

An earlier version of this reflection appeared as “Life’s Work or Mission Statement? in The Elephant Journal on October 14, 2013.



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