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Good Letters

20110421-in-search-of-gladness-by-tony-woodliefIt’s a galling irony that I am frequently asked to speak to young people, to tell them something about life, and what I have learned in mine, and what they should therefore go and do with theirs.

It is an irony because my life feels like a slow-moving disaster, and most nights all I can hope is that if the second half doesn’t bring redemption, perhaps it will bring something different than what I have lived thus far.

I don’t tell them this, because young people don’t want to hear about your mistakes, other than the salacious details. Our mistakes are usually more interesting to us, and they don’t help anyone anyway; mostly we each commit our sins thinking we are doing right, or that we can’t bear for another second whatever it is that’s crushing us. What good is someone’s else’s cautionary tale in the face of false virtue or aching hunger?

So I warn them that while I have hopes for them, my greatest hope is that they can live better lives than I.

Then I direct them to the words of Frederick Buechner.

I love Fred. More than once, when I’d thought too long about where I could go to put my 9 mm in my mouth, how I might arrange it so my children wouldn’t be the ones to find the corpse, it was Buechner’s words that assuaged my impulse to self-destruction.

Buechner, who found the body of his own father, a suicide. Sweet, tortured Buechner, the minister who does not preach in a church, but in pages.

The particular words of Buechner’s to which I direct them concern vocation. What he says is that our vocation is that place where our deep gladness meets the world’s great hunger. “In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad.”

These are scandalous notions, that we need to be glad, that the world needs our gladness. Our Puritan forbears were certainly suspicious of gladness, and their modern, secular inheritors of grimness—professors and politicians and preachers—demand not gladness, but utility. Get an education so you can earn a living. If you don’t apply yourself, how will you ever get ahead? For Christ’s sake, do something useful with yourself.

It’s good, I think, to find ways to scandalize young people, especially since there’s so little remaining, in an era of Lady Gaga and eight-figure payouts for failed CEOs, that might seem scandalous.

And so when I stood in front of some of the brightest students in the country a few weeks back, delivering the last of a series of guest lectures, I urged them to consider Buechner’s guidance.

We had to create some space, in order for his words to gather force in their hearts, between the gladness of which he writes, and the happiness to which students at an elite university, in this prosperous, peaceful, pleasure-besotted society, are accustomed.

I suggested that genuine gladness, as opposed to momentary pleasures, is something enduring, something that has heft. I didn’t have Buechner’s essay, “The Calling of Voices,” in front of me, because if I did I would simply have read his explanation of a gladness-inspiring vocation, which is something which “leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace.”

Neither definition is very satisfying to students accustomed to precision. One pressed me further, and so rather than a definition, I offered him my experience: we accumulate suffering as we grow older, so that the things which once brought us happiness no longer ameliorate the pain. Those things that give us gladness, however, give us even greater joy in the midst of our suffering.

His shoulders relaxed, he nodded.

Maybe all anyone wants is a straight answer. Don’t give me math, give me the heart’s truth.

The blessing of meeting these students is that they have something very unusual in such a high-powered university—a small group of faculty devoted not just to their intellectual improvement, but the cultivation of their spirits.

And so when I urged them to search for that meeting place of gladness and hunger, one of the professors asked: “How many of you know what brings you gladness?”


“Do any of you know?” he asked.

Some were still and quiet, some shook their heads. No one nodded in the affirmative. A young lady raised her hand, and offered to speak for the group. She said she came to this school because she is good at math, because she thought that is what she was supposed to do. But she doesn’t know what to do with her life, what will give her gladness.

I left thinking this is a pity, that there is some great lesson here about young people and higher education and modern America.

But lately I have been thinking there is no lesson, only the question: do I know?

Perhaps it arises for you as well. Do you know what brings you gladness?

It would be a pity to reach the end of this life not having known, not having stretched out our hands toward the gladness for which we were surely crafted. But it’s a frightening thing, to look fully at our work and relationships and amusements, to gauge whether they bring us true gladness, or just momentary respite from fear, from hurt, from regret.

So here’s my offer to you, dear stranger: I’ll look if you look.

And may we each have the courage to embrace what is good for us, what draws us nearer to ourselves and to God, no matter from what it draws us away. Because if we don’t find our gladness, and pursue it to the deep-running needs of this world, how will our children ever know to do the same?

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website

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