Limerick Milk Market on a Saturday is a place to be. A lovely mixture of a traditional market space surrounded by small shops but covered by a jauntily angled awning that embraces the old with the new. The buzz, the smells, the chatter and the flow of life swirl around the tented space protecting the traditional market.
So it was a strange to find, at the back of the bar area a message of a quite different type. Wheeled in on a trailer was a display that asked starkly "what do you want to do before you die?" Not only did it ask the question but it also invited replies that could be chalked up on a huge board. The atmosphere around those who were writing was oddly up-beat. There were smiles, suggestions and thoughtfulness stirred into the emotional mix of the crowd at the blackboards.
What would you write? What do you want to do before you die? We only live for 700,000 or so hours- how do you want to spend them? In the rush of life, the pressures and the problems, we can easily lose sight of what is of lasting value. Sometimes just keeping going can take all of our attention and the deeper questions get trodden underfoot as we struggle to keep up with life. Have a glance at what people wrote in the Milk Market and see if it helps you to answer that question for yourself.
As well as the desire to travel, to tell an original joke, meet George Clooney and ride an elephant there are others that catch the eye: I want to slow down, I want to watch my children grow, to flourish as an artist, make others happy, build my own house and engage the world with meaning. Others wanted to kiss Brad Pitt, own a Maserati, swim in the Shannon River and to have their 15 minutes of fame. This range of desires is interesting because nowhere does it include working harder, earning more money but it does include hidden dreams, a fascination with celebrity and a desire to escape the pressures tasks and timetables of life.
Studies have shown that when a person has reached a basic level of income his or her sense of well-being does not improve- they do not increase in happiness as money increases beyond their basic needs. Yet we are surrounded by a media that keeps telling us the opposite: that owning and earning more leads to greater freedom and happiness- "because we're worth it" as one cosmetic advert describes it. In fact ownership usually leads to anxiety and promotes envy in others. This applies to popularity and power as much as to money as any parent will confirm as they watch their children working out who is in charge and who is the favourite.
Our tendency to compete for possessions both material and relational is the source of unhappiness (perhaps original sin) and what we see on the blackboard is a snapshot of our condition as human beings- wanting to grasp happiness, to choose life, but instead being sidetracked into scoring points and seeking attention in a world that can seem very superficial.
What sets us free from this endless cycle of earning and owning is a deeper sense of soul. Don Bosco spoke often about saving souls from moral dangers. In our times consumerism is actually consuming our souls. It provides the agenda, sets the competition and hands out the prizes making winners and losers of us all. But underneath all this activity and noise is the soul: that unique part of a person that endures. The soul stores a person story, it has the potential to give meaning and shape to life, it is the source of mystery that beats in the pulse and is the place where, in the end, we are most creative and alive. Above all it is the privileged place where we will establish a relationship with God.
So perhaps the question on the board could have asked "how healthy is your soul?" That question has to bring us all to our knees because it is the one thing we need to do if we are to live well. The Catechism reminds us that our first obligation as Christians is the saving of our souls. So are you looking after your soul today, this week, this year? Are your deepest desires, the intuitions and rhythms of life being heard above the noise of life's slot machine culture? If your deafened soul is not in the driving seat for your life journey someone else is running your life. To re-claim your soul is the purpose of your life and as you pursue that purpose you will find that happiness is a by-product of that search for your prodigal soul.
But don't wait too long to claim your soul back from this culture- you have 700,000 hours to spend and by the age of 30 you have already used up 37% of your life. Do some soul-searching soon!
PS I should also add that the blackboards were in place to promote a project of the Irish Hospice Foundation. You can visit their site for more background.