by Marta Pacini
‘You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.’
These words were spoken over two hundred years ago by John Murray, one of the founders of American Universalism.
In eighteenth-century North America the Calvinist idea of predestination was very widespread.
According to this idea, some of us are chosen by God to be saved, and others to be damned to Hell. The Universalists, however, proclaimed that God is too good to want to punish humans for all eternity, and that even though sinners may suffer temporary punishment, in the end each and every person will be saved. This was, of course, a revolutionary message.
John Murray continued the speech I just quoted by saying ‘bring them not hell but hope and courage’. The Universalists proceeded to become vocal advocates for the power of love both among humans and between humans and God. By 1961, their theology and that of our more immediate North American counterparts, the American Unitarian Association, had become so closely aligned that the two denominations chose to merge into the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism undertook enormous theological shifts between the time of their emergence and the time of their merger, as indeed Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism continue to evolve and change to this day.
Nevertheless, I believe that we can learn some important lessons from John Murray’s powerful words spoken so many years ago. Let us hear them one more time: ‘You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.’
One thing I really like about this quote is the fact that Murray is not placing an overly cumbersome burden on us humans. As inspiring as powerful, prophetic speakers can be, I sometimes feel daunted by the magnitude of their ask, when they compel us to take immediate, grandiose action to make everlasting changes to the world.
Of course, bold, grandiose actions are required to bring about the change we want to see in the world. But it is often easy to cave in under such enormous pressure and conclude that, after all, such powerful influence is just too much to hope for, and that truly we will never be able to change a thing.
Murray is gentler than that. He doesn’t ask us to move mountains all by ourselves. He recognises that one person on their own might not be able to do as much as is needed, or even as much as they would like to. But at the same time, he urges us to do something. ‘You may only possess a small light’ he says, ‘but uncover it, let it shine’.
• So, how do we do that?
• How do we discover what our light is?
• How do we get it to shine?
Countless books and articles have been written on how to discover your true passion, your purpose, your calling. One concept that I have come across several times is that of ikigai. It’s a Japanese word. I-K-I-G-A-I. Ikigai.
Marc Winn explains that ikigai is at the centre of your profession, your vocation, your mission and your passion. These are made up of the things you love, the things you are good at, the things you can get paid for and the things that the world needs. If you can find one thing to do that is at the intersection of all of these, then you have found your ikigai, your purpose.
Does that sound complicated to any of you? Could I see a show of hands? It definitely sounded complicated to me when I first heard of it. But then again, finding your life purpose is probably not an easy thing to do, regardless of whether you adopt the ikigai model or go about finding your purpose another way.
For one thing, we are often spoilt for choice. We no longer live in a society which expects us to follow in our parent’s footsteps when it comes to work. It is still possible for many to access further and higher education, although much less easy than it was some decades ago.
On the other hand, many jobs have ceased to exist in this country, and others have emerged that we may not even be aware of. Choosing and finding work is complicated business, these days. And work is only one aspect of the ikigai model.
You are supposed to find something that you are good at doing and that you will get paid for, and on top of that make sure that you love doing it, and that the world needs it, too. Not easy.
Personally, it took me a long time to decide what the real purpose of my life should be. I am twenty-five, which you will probably think is quite young. And it is. But I have still had plenty of time to rack my brain searching for the one thing that I should really dedicate my life to, perhaps because I started thinking about this when I was very young.
I thought I’d study philosophy, but I wasn’t sure I would get a paid job after that. Then I thought I’d work in international development, but a lot of the approaches to it that are currently out there are not, in my opinion, what the world needs. Then I started a play project for adults, which I loved and which I think the world does need, but which I would never have been able to pay rent and bills on. So, I started to train as a teacher, but I didn’t end up being very good at it, because I wasn’t able to cope with the immense pressures of the job.
Given all these indecisions, I consider myself lucky that one morning, immediately after making the decision to quit teaching, I woke up and knew with absolute clarity that I wanted to be a Unitarian minister.
It was a very clear imperative, and a quite sudden ‘call’. I appreciate that this might not be most people’s experience when it comes to discovering your purpose. But I don’t believe that my calling came out of the blue.
While some theists might believe that it is God who calls one to serve as a minister, I doubt God would choose an atheist like me for that purpose. In my view, my calling came very strongly from my community, from all I have received from it and from a deep yearning to pay it forward.
So even though the experience of it was sudden, it had been in the making ever since I first walked through the doors of my home congregation. What this experience has taught me is that to find your true purpose, you have to live. And you are all living, so that’s a pretty good start.
So, live. Seek novel experiences. Go somewhere new, especially if it makes you a little bit uncomfortable at first. And listen to yourself as you do. Check in with yourself and catch yourself feeling deeply fulfilled, maybe for the first time in a while. Think about what it was that fulfilled you and do more of it. It will make you happy, and if you’re happy you have a very strong chance of making others happy, too.
It could be anything. I mean this. It does not have to be grand. Switching professions like I’m planning to do is a life-changing step, and for some of you that may be the right thing to do, too. But you don’t have to change your whole life around if you don’t want to. You may discover that you want to keep your job, but that you’d like to start spending a little bit of time each week tending your garden. This will help you produce beautiful flowers or nourishing food that will make you and others happy.
An ancient rabbi admonished us: ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it’. Let us keep up the work of happiness. We can all do it. We all possess a light inside us that, if nourished, will guide us to be our best and most fulfilled selves. It may only be a small one, but we can all uncover it and let it shine.
May you find your little light.
May you uncover it.
May you let it shine.
May it be so.
Copyright Marta Pacini, used by permission,
given in St Mark’s on 8 July 2018.
Marta Pacini is the youth worker at Monton Unitarian Church,
Eccles, Greater Manchester