Robert Moses’ brother Paul was a brilliant (and brilliantly-trained) civil engineer. With a world-class intellect and a world-class education, he should have been a member of New York City’s premier builders and architects in the 1920s and 30s. He should have been as famous as his brother, who was never an engineer but held the reins on all of New York City’s largest public works projects for most of his life. The fact that his brother was in a prime position to give him the choicest posts and positions in government added to the seeming inevitability of his success.
All the same, Paul Moses died in obscurity, poor and bitter and unfulfilled, his gifts withering on the vine.
His story and stories like it remind me that desiring something, being well-suited for a particular duty or destiny, does not mean you’ll ever actually achieve that thing. In Paul Moses’ case, he hardly came close.
All my life, I’ve tried to build communities around me. Pretty much every attempt has been fizzled, with a couple of exceptions. I haven’t figured out what makes me aspire to be a “gatherer,” but I started doing it at an early age.
The short list of failed clubs I started included:
- A comics club in third grade
- A prayer group in seventh grade
- A bible study in ninth grade
- A zine in my junior year
Despite my poor attempts, I kept trying. I learned things and I got better at it. More to the point, I noticed that I’m my best self when I’m gathering people together and facilitating friendships between people.
Living as Nature Demands
There’s a kind of glory in doing something you feel designed to do, when you’re fulfilling some deep and unarticulated purpose within yourself. The chest swells, the voice carriers further and with more authority, and there’s a kind of nobility in the way you carry yourself. Pettiness melts away. You’re moving and speaking with grace, filling the room wherever you walk. Nothing can hurt you or impede you—everything you do and say is driven by divine conviction.
It’s intoxicating. I believe people who burn through books on finding fulfilling work or creating a vocation are really looking for this feeling. Marcus Aurelius would call it “living as nature demands,” doing the thing that logos, or Providence, created you for.
Among the things that fulfill me, gathering people is the most powerful. Gathering people is a vital role. We underestimate how hard it is to create meaningful friendships in the landscape of high rents, long work days, and stagnated wages. The idea of the “work spouse” illustrates best how we’ve replaced our most intimate relationships with intimate work relationships.
I’m thankful for the friends who have fulfilled their role better than I have. Community-building is critical for our mental and emotional health.
The Best of Us Is Found in Parking Lots
It’s not all good feelings, though. When I’m not fully prepared or centered, extending invitations is anxious work. Every “no,” no matter how reasonable or sweetly-worded, feels a little like rejection—even when I know it’s not. Despite my enjoyment of bringing people together, I get a little anxious about what to do once they’re all together.
I think, too, that I’m afraid of looking needy when I continue to ask people to join me on hikes or come to dinner or meet me for lunch. It’s socially more valuable to be the person “in demand,” to be the one invited rather than the person giving the invite. Being a gatherer sometimes feels like I’m knocking on everyone’s door at once, and that can be a vulnerable feeling.
Then there’s the fact that, ultimately, I need my alone time. Call me an introvert or an introverted extrovert or an extrovert with a healthy sense of balance, but being around people is tiring. I have to gear up to be around a group of people, even if I pulled that group together.
At some point last year, I took a break from trying to bring friends together. I stopped inviting people into my inner life and stopped putting effort into building community. I thought it would be a small thing at the time, but it wasn’t. It diminished me. I regressed into childhood behaviors (reading at lunch, spending mealtimes alone, avoiding parties or gatherings). It took an outside voice to call out what I was doing—I was hiding.
I’m not sure why a temporary rest became a permanent exile, but I decided then and there that gathering people wasn’t a cloying or needy thing. It’s a necessary part of who I am, of the role I was shaped for. It’s a necessary part of the way I serve the people around me.
Almost immediately, I pulled together friends from work and church and elsewhere to go see the snow at Mt. Piños. It’s an hour’s drive one way, so it wasn’t exactly a low-commitment invite. Not only that, but I’d be putting people together who had never met, who might not mesh with each other as well as I did with them. It’s a bit of a social risk to do that to people—to put them in a situation where they’re an hour from home and stuck together on a mountain for an afternoon.
It was, thankfully, a near-perfect day. My friends from different wings of my life got to know each other, we played in the snow for an afternoon, and I spent nearly two hours in a parking lot catching up with an old friend. The hiking and the photos were fun—the two hours of conversation after the event was the purpose of the whole day.
Shade for Many Nests
Accidentally diminishing myself over the last year made me realize how close we are to being our highest selves. It also made me realize how close we are to living lives of frustrated fulfillment, half-living without ever tasting a sense of what makes us noble or strong or worthwhile. It took so little of me to nurture the best of myself, to serve my community with what I had to offer. At the same time, it took all of my thought and effort and a fair share of vulnerability.
It might be worthwhile to ask ourselves, periodically, what makes us our best selves. The better question might be this: what do we do for our community that ignites our convictions? Our best selves are revealed in a forge made of other people, and service to those people is how we learn the roles we inhabit.
For me, my purpose is best put in a verse in Mark:
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”Mark 4:30-32
At the end of my life, I hope to have provided shade for many nests.