I am not so naive as to think that only one path can bring personal fulfillment, I have personally come to discover that one needs a dialectic tension between challenge and comfort in order to thrive and achieve one's best. Maintaining that tension, however, is perhaps one of the most challenging and difficult things to do. I have frequently found myself leaning either towards challenge or comfort at the exclusion (or at least minimalisation) of the other.
Here's what I mean - I work best when there is a bit of pressure. Perhaps it is just that very primal 'old brain' kicking in when there is a threat (the amygdala is not all that clever, it can't tell the difference between an external life threatening event and an internal 'ego' threatening event. All that it can sense is that there is some form of threat - it may be a threat of shame or disappointment at not completing a task, or underachieving, or missing a deadline - whatever, the 'old brain' senses a threat and kicks my mind and body into action). When one is under pressure (or threat) one gains extra energy, creativity and endurance (this is mainly because the brain causes the endochronotic system release adrenalin and a few other chemicals into one's system). Sadly, some of us become too accustomed to operating in this manner and so we seek out situations of pressure (sometimes willingly, i.e., by taking on more work than we know we are able to do reasonably. Sometimes unwillingly i.e., we procrastinate until the pressure is high enough to demand a sterling effort to complete a task). Does this sound familiar!? Well, the reality is that if this is not managed it can great a building up stress and toxins within your body and you can become ill. I'm sure that we've all been there a few times in our lives!
The other extreme, comfort, is also a danger. I have been here a little less frequently, but I have certainly been here! This is that state where it all becomes too much for me and so a 'clutch out'. At times this has been an endogenous reaction (i.e., it has come from within my body or mind - I simply need to create space to breath, and in doing so I slow down to such an extent that I either become ill or depressed), sometimes it is exogenous (i.e., like my motorcycle accident earlier this year - I am rushing from one appointment to the next, get knocked off my bike and end up in hospital). The long and the short of it is that this is a time where I am unproductive, and because of my ego needs and personality makeup, a lack of productivity affects my self-worth (you know the Adam Smith - a person's value is measured by their contribution to society bit), and I also end up experiencing stress and struggle.
So, I have come to realise that I need a dynamic tension between challenge and comfort to deliver my best. It is not all that subtle or refined, it is something that is quite functional. It means that I have to spend a bit of time managing my diary, having creative outlets such as writing, blogging and preaching, and that I need enough challenges and new adventures to keep me interested and excited.
I came to realise some years ago that because of the complexity of this internal process that I will never be able to leave my 'happiness' entirely up to others - don't get me wrong, other persons and structures are an integral part of my happiness, but I cannot expert others to either create the environment, or facilitate the pace, in which I achieve my best. That is the area in which I need to exercise mastery! I need to set my pace to get the optimum situation, or else someone else will graft my life to their pace.
Sure, there is a measure of give and take, but at the end of the day I know that God understands my makeup (after all as Psalm 139 puts it, God both created me before I was born and dreamt and wrote about my life before I had even lived a day of it). So, I pray about my day - frequently I pray about the appointments and persons in my diary, the challenges that lie ahead, and I plan and strategise to get the best out of my time and energy to balance comfort and challenge.
I'll admit, I don't always get it right - but at least there is the attempt and the intention. Have you give any thought to what it is that makes you tick? Perhaps half an hour or so considering your life in God's presence would be one of the best half hours you spend today!?
Here are a few tips I've received along the way - I'm better at some than others:
1. Be sure that you are loved by God, and that God does desire the very best for you and those close to you. This is not necessarily something that has to do with wealth, power, or acclaim - rather it has to do with true living and God's loving grace in spite of the very real situations and struggles of this world.
2. Do your best to understand your unique God given gifts, purpose and ability. This does change with training, experience, time and context. But be relatively sure what it is that God has created you to do. When you understand this it makes it much easier to do what needs to be done, and not do what others may want you to do, but is not part of your purpose. Each person is uniquely gifted! You will find great blessing, joy, and fulfillment when you are able to function in the area where you find blessing and bless others. When you're outside of this you'll be frustrated and find your energy drained. You will be most blessed when you do what God has created you to do since it will honour God who created you that way, and you will find a measure of challenge to grow in what you like, but also have enough confidence to operate in what you know you can do. If I can offer one piece of advice in this regard - I frequently have to ask 'what can I do that no-one else can do (or do as well) can do?' For me it is thinking the way I do, the way I write, relate to people like I do. There are few people that have close relationships with some of the people I know, work with and have influence with. So, I need to concentrate on those things and people and can have relative freedom to pass on the things that anyone else could be, or should be, doing. Do you see what I am saying? Operate within your area of unique ability and blessing, be careful not to get distracted or spend too much energy outside of this area. It will wear you out and leave you feeling that you're not doing something worthwhile with your life and time.
3. Re-evaluate your life frequently. Make sure that you have a good balance between challenge and comfort. Set some realistic goals to grow in what you're good at, what you're called to do, and to sharpen your skills. There is a natural tendency to let those things that you do well and naturally 'slide' along. For example, because I preach easily I often found when I was in pastoral ministry that I would often expend by best energy and most of my time doing things that I struggled to do (in order to cover those bases), then I would give whatever time and energy I had left for sermon prep. I would preach OK, but end up being a generalist with fair results in everything rather than being very good at the one thing that I could do well.
You may have some other thoughts and insights to add!
Well, these are just a few thoughts that I typed while I was on the train from Wimbledon to Hatton Cross. Blessings for the day ahead. I am just about to get off the Piccadilly line service at Hatton Cross to go to my meetings. My leg is feeling much better with the medication!