With an awkward footnote preserving a middle-of-the-night scratch outline on how to further revise my ALPLM paper ‘Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860.’

A useful discernment or decision-making technique I learned in a class for Dominican lay associate candidates — it’s called ikigai, and I wish I’d known about it when I was going through a career change in the 1990s. Wikipedia defines it as “a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose, a reason for living.”

Ikigai seems to be chiefly known in the West as a Japanese management and human resources concept, and it’s a useful way of thinking through conundrums in life and making midcourse corrections as needed. But there’s more to it than that, and I think it can be quite powerful.

So here’s a product testimonial: In my case, it’s helping me redirect a major historical research project and — hopefully — lift myself out of a funk that’s had me listlessly doomscrolling CNN and MSNBC instead of working on it for a couple of months now. The project’s about an immigrant community in the 1850s. And last year I presented a preliminary workup, a paper titled “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860” (a reference to Williams’ concept of separating church and state by keeping politics out of the ecclesiastical garden), at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s annual conference on Illinois history.

But the daily news is full of parallels to the 1850s that make me think we’re sleepwalking into another apocalypse — especially since the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6 and subsequent revelations that white Christian nationalists were heavily involved in it. It’s all too depressing, and I’ve put the project on hold.

But as I learn more about ikigai and try to put the concept to work in my own discernment process, I’m reconsidering.

Ikigai: A focus for ‘small joys in everyday life’

“Essentially,” says Yukari Mitsuhashi in an explainer on the BBC website, “ikigai is the reason why you get up in the morning.”

A freelance writer now living in Los Angeles, Mitsuhashi says:

To those in the West who are more familiar with the concept of ikigai, it’s often associated with a Venn diagram with four overlapping qualities: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

Here’s the Venn diagram:

Ikigai, graphic by Emmy van Deurzen (Wikimedia Commons)

“For Japanese however, the idea is slightly different,” adds Mitsuhashi. “One’s ikigai may have nothing to do with income. […] Someone’s value in life can be work – but is certainly not limited to that.”

Citing a psychiatrist named Mieko Kamiya, whose 1966 book (never translated into English) popularized the concept in Japan, she says the word ikigai means happiness, but with “a subtle difference in its nuance.” She puts it like this:

Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future even if you’re miserable right now.

And with that she got my attention. Mitsuhashi adds:

Hasegawa points out that in English, the word life means both lifetime and everyday life. So, ikigai translated as life’s purpose sounds very grand. “But in Japan we have jinsei, which means lifetime and seikatsu, which means everyday life,” he says. The concept of ikigai aligns more to seikatsu and, through his research, Hasegawa discovered that Japanese people believe that the sum of small joys in everyday life results in more fulfilling life as a whole.

But how does that align with broad attitudes like passion and mission? Marion Tilly, a certified professional career coach and founder of the Institute of You and Reflective Mind Co. of Dublin, relates it to the common Venn diagram. “The core of ikigai,” she says, “can be found at the junction of your passion, your mission, your vocation, and your profession.” She explains:

  • Your passion is what you’re good at and what you love
  • Your mission is what you love and what the world needs
  • Your vocation is what the world needs and what you can be paid for
  • Your profession is what you can be paid for and what you’re good at

In other words, our ikigai is the sweet spot where all four intersect. Tilly has a “non-exhaustive list of questions” to help us find that sweet spot. Questions like: What is the most important to you in life? What are your values and how do you use them every day? What makes you smile? How do you help others? How could you be more involved in your community? What activities do you do in your personal time? What is easy for you? What are your achievements?

Finding an amateur historian’s sweet spot

At the Dominican motherhouse, we left off the bottom part of the Venn diagram — the one that asks “what can you be PAID FOR?” After all, the presentation was for people who take vows of poverty. But when I set about answering Marion Tilly’s questions, I decided quickly enough I’d better put it back in.

Here’s why: It was abundantly clear that my passion involves writing and historical research, and I’m pretty good at it. At least I’ve had articles published in regional historical magazines, and I’ve presented papers at Illinois state history conferences. But it was also abundantly clear — and has been for a long time — that writing for publication is largely a matter of finding a market, i.e. someone who will publish you, and tailoring what you write to their specifications.

So I put the parts about vocation and profession back in my Venn diagram and rephrased it like this: “what I can I write that I can GET PUBLISHED?”

So as I went through the questions, I had an important box to check. Yes. I can get my stuff in historical magazines. The others went kind of like this: What do I love to do? Write. I’m one of those guys who can’t not write. I don’t even know what I think unless I write it down. (That’s one reason for this blog post, by the way.) What else do I love? Research. Looking stuff up. I do a Google search on everything. Historical research in particular.

It’s even kind of nice to spend part of my day in the 1850s visiting an urban slum called Swede Town on the North Side of Chicago. (It was about where the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project would be located a hundred years later.) They had their problems in the 1850s. Bitter fights with proselytizing Methodists and Baptists, even Episcopalians. A kind of political sectarianism, eerily like our own today, that would soon lead to civil war. Even a cholera epidemic. But it’s a change of pace. And I can always come back to my 21st-century electricity and running water in time for the PBS NewsHour.

Besides, I know how the Swedes’ story ended. Spoiler alert: They did OK in the long run. Full disclosure: I married into a Swedish-American family, and in spite of all the bad jokes about Norskies, I learned to love pickled herring and potato baloney at Christmas (but not lutfisk), and the rest of Swedish-American heritage. It’s one of the pieces that make up the mosaic of 21st-century American cultural heritage.

This year, due to the pandemic, we’ll probably stay home for Christmas and order chicken biryani and bhindi masala carryout from a mom-and-pop Indian restaurant. It’s all part of the mosaic. Which is more like a smörgåsbord, a jambalaya, an Irish stew or a Mongolian hotpot than a mosaic, anyway, the more I think about it.

The food, of course, is just a handy metaphor. In the 1850s, Swedish immigrants were able to navigate the sectarian currents of their day and fashion the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod and a blended, Swedish-American culture. Svensk-Amerika, in turn, would later influence American culture, particularly the Lutheran denomination (ELCA) the Swedish synod ultimately merged into. Similarly, today’s Latino and South Asian immigrants — to name only a couple — continue to enrich a diverse, pluralistic American society, even as our politicians threaten to shut it down again.

And that, I think, is a story worth telling.

An awkward little footnote

When I was thinking through what I wanted to say in this post, I jotted down a scratch outline for how I might spin off some of my research into Swedish-American churches of the 1850s into easily manageable pieces. The post went off in a different direction, but I don’t want to lose the outline. So here it is, in all its largely unedited glory but with links that will help me pick up the thread later:

Basically, it occurred to me, when I got up for a midnight snack, to separate “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden” into two manageable projects:

  • Rework October 2020 presentation into an article for Illinois Historical Journal, leading with [Norwegian pastor] Paul Andersen in Chicago and focusing on [Swedish pastor LP] Esbjörn’s relations with the American Home Missionary Society as he established the Augustana Synod’s mother in Andover.
  • Outline a more speculative article leading with ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s homily at Augustana LC in Andover and focusing on reciprocal creolization, Christian nationalism, ecumenism, etc.

It was exactly 3:57 a.m. when I raided the refrigerator before jotting down this outline. Knowing what happens to other brilliant ideas that occur to me in the middle of the night, I am including it here without apology.

References on ikigai

Yukari Mitsuhashi, “Ikigai: A Japanese concept to improve work and life,” BBC Worklife, Aug. 7, 2017 https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170807-ikigai-a-japanese-concept-to-improve-work-and-life.

Marion Tilly, “What Ikigai Means And How To Find Yours,” Institute of You https://instituteofyou.org/what-ikigai-means-and-how-to-find-yours/.

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