One evening when I was in college, I attended an orchestral concert in the large Gothic Revival chapel. The atmosphere was elegant, subdued. The space was dim, candles on two grand wooden candelabras burned up front, and hundreds of listeners were swept up in the rise and swell of the music.
I sat toward the back. In my late teens and early twenties I was terrifically shy; I avoided talking to professors, stuck tight to my core group of friends, and did my best to avoid any limelight. The student body at my college was extreme in its intelligence and talent, which intimidated me terribly; for three years I was convinced admissions had made a mistake by accepting me, and I struggled mightily to prove to myself or anyone that I belonged. I’m not sure when or how that feeling dissipated, but the night of this concert certainly helped.
Midway through the performance, I noticed that one of the fat white tapers of the candelabra was faulty. Its side had melted, exposing the wick; the flame licked it up. Wax spilled onto the tile floor. While the other candles still stood twelve inches tall, this one was quickly disappearing. I watched as flames touched the wooden base. Suddenly I couldn’t hear the music. Right in front of six hundred undergraduates and professors and community members, where everyone could see, was the beginning of a fire.
I sat perhaps thirty rows from the front. Hundreds of people were closer than me; surely one of them would do something. The wood caught and smoke started rising. No one stirred. What’s wrong with these people?! I thought. Why is no one blowing this out?
Suddenly I couldn’t help myself. Neither my reticence nor insecurity was strong enough to subdue common sense. I stood up, squeezed past my seatmates, marched down the aisle, and blew out the fire while it was still small enough to blow. I felt every eye turn toward me. I had interrupted a performance by a world-renowned orchestra. Even so, I walked back to my seat proudly, confidently, because I alone had done what needed to be done.
These days, whenever I struggle with discernment—what is mine to do?—I think about this moment. Each of us has unique gifts, and that night in college I learned that practical smarts are one of mine. Over the years I’ve gradually stopped criticizing the room full of people for not noticing—apparently that wasn’t their gift—and instead pay close attention to what I notice. What do I see that no one else sees? Why do I see this? What is born of my personality and circumstances and gifts and shortcomings—what rises up from my unique self so strongly that all self-doubt falls aside and I can’t help but act? That’s what is mine to do.
People of faith use the terms “calling” or “vocation” to describe this same phenomenon, but both terms imply some external voice beckoning you forward. Even the word “discernment,” which I use, implies some right path that I must separate from the wrong. Generally, though, I don’t believe in some objectively correct path forward. What’s mine to do is a fire burning within, compelling me toward the fire burning without. That’s how I know what’s next. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew