Last year, my cousin Paul from the Mid-West, came to New York City for some job interviews. He was in his early twenties and had recently graduated from college. He stayed with us for several days, so we had a chance to get much better acquainted.
By the third day of interviews, it was clear Paul was discouraged and at "loose ends" about his career plans. As caring family members, my wife and I wondered if there was anything we could do to help him. And yet, we did not want to intrude too much on his privacy, nor imply that we thought he was not able to solve his own problems.
Paul said the job interviews had not gone well ---- either the interviews fell flat, or Paul found the prospective employer and/or the offered job to be disappointing. He said that his career planning now seemed to be a failure. Therefore, I thought a little coaching might helpful.
There are a number of ways to engage a hurting person in personal conversation, but one way I have found fruitful is to gently ask, "What personal gifts do you think you have?" The very nature of the question ---- "What gifts do you think you have?" seems to affirm the person's dignity and hopefully encourages them to take a more positive attitude about their life. This is not asking how they spend their free time, but rather to think about the choices they might make in the use of their personal gifts.
I think of a "personal" gift as a particular God-given talent or skill which one uses better, easier or more successfully than most other people.
After an awkward moment, Paul cited a gift or two, with some sense of pride. I asked Paul to think more broadly ---- were there any God-given gifts that he could use more consciously to improve his life? "Too many folks do not focus on whether they possess any gifts," I told Paul. "So, you and they need to take an inventory. How can one be a good steward of their gifts and personal resources, if they do not even know what all of them are? We need the whole picture so we can develop the potential which God gives us from the very start?"
Surprisingly, one's opinion of their gifts may be quite different from what they tell you about themselves. Sometimes a bit of false modesty creeps in ---- they do not want to appear to be bragging! At other times we'll hear a gift described that had totally eluded us in our relationship with this person. I remember that as a teenager I had some dreams based on gifts I "wished" myself into believing I possessed, but it turned out that I did not actually have them. Luckily, I outgrew those false personal gift illusions.
So, what do you say to a friend who tells you, "Yes, I have several gifts I would like to develop, but my daily life is already crazy with commitments?" Well, Paul's reaction was along those lines. "I have college debt, a girl friend who wants to get married and move to California, and I need to do odd jobs to pay my other current bills." Many of us can sympathize with fully-committed Paul.
It may sound a little bit grand, but how about trying to enjoy a feast by taking just a few bites at a time, chewing thoroughly and then savoring the flavor?
I once had a friend who had a passion for soccer, but knew he was no longer young enough to continue playing. He turned to coaching a YMCA youth team and was happy to discover that he had a gift for teaching youngsters the finer points of soccer. He simply adjusted how to use his gift to fit his new circumstances.
This reminds me of another important point. When you inventory your personal gifts, some of those gifts show up over and over again through the years. However, be alert to new arrivals. New experiences, new challenges and new relationships with other people, may bring some new items to our personal gift inventory. Some people call this "growth". You should treat the new items as a blessing, and put them to work.
Where does this take us? First, we need to be really clear about our own personal gifts, and find ways and time to employ them. Secondly, when we encounter someone who will focus mainly on his or her problems and not on their personal gifts, draw them into conversation about this unfamiliar aspect of their lives ---- their personal gifts. If you are lucky you will have some impact on their viewpoint ---- a negative viewpoint that has been blinding them to the capabilities, talents and resources they possess. Ideally, they will come to see a person (themselves) who is full of possibilities given to them by God. The beauty of this approach is that their "cure" comes from within themselves ---- you are simply the catalyst and encouragement, but that is indispensable help.
Remember, your job as encourager is not a one-shot assignment. Keep giving positive reinforcement, praise and appreciation to your friend, for continuing the hard work that has been started.
These thoughts have been brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this summer at CPC.