Soulfulness in an Age of Striving
Ken Shigematsu reminds us that a whole self is built on a deep knowledge of God’s love
Kurt Vonnegut included a philosophy joke in one of his novels. It looked like this:
“To be is to do.” — Socrates
“To do is to be.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
“Do be do be do.” — Frank Sinatra
I can’t vouch for Vonnegut’s take on Socrates or Sartre, but I will say this: Any person who can be as well as they do lives as well as Sinatra could sing.
Ken Shigematsu opens Survival Guide for the Soul by distinguishing between doing and being. Drawing on an insight about Genesis 1–2 by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Shigematsu speaks of “Striving Adam” and “Soulful Adam.” These are not two different Adams, but two different ways of describing tendencies within all people.
“One part of us strives to impact the world around us through our work and effort,” Shigematsu writes. That’s doing. “And another part of us seeks soulful connection through relationships with people and by experiencing ultimate reality.” That’s being.
To move knowledge of God’s love from our heads to our hearts, we need spiritual disciplines.
Ideally, we should keep our striving and our soulfulness together. But in the modern world, which emphasizes achievement, fame and success, Striving Adam has the upper hand, and Soulful Adam gets shoved aside. In response, we need to reemphasize meaning, not so that we can ignore achievement, but so that we can bring our striving back into balance with our soulfulness.
As Christians, Shigematsu argues, soulfulness begins and ends with understanding that we are God’s beloved: “Knowing that we are deeply loved by our Creator frees us to pursue a life of significant, enduring achievement — a life that is not driven by fear and anxiety but one that springs from a deep well of joy and gratitude for the love and grace God has shown us.”
At a surface level, all Christians know that God loves them. It’s written in black and white on the pages of Scripture. It’s painted blood red on the cross of Christ. But that surface knowledge too often doesn’t make it into the deep parts of our souls, where our emotions and passions govern. To move knowledge of God’s love from our heads to our hearts, we need spiritual disciplines.
Shigematsu discusses seven spiritual disciplines — he calls them “survival habits of the soul” — throughout the book. They are meditation, Sabbath, gratitude, simple abundance, servanthood, friendship, and vocation. Each of these is a way of tuning out and tuning in. Tuning out worldly voices that tell us we are only as good as what we achieve, and tuning in to God’s voice that tells us we are truly and deeply loved.
“May you live more and more fully into the knowledge that the Creator of the universe cherishes you as a son or daughter,” writes Shigematsu at the book’s end.
That’s a good prayer for every soulful striver.
Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul: How to Flourish Spiritually in a World That Pressures Us to Achieve (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).