Simon says: Heed the call
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin said something profound and essential recently. As she was winding down her presidential decision-making process -- discerning her role, and perhaps starting to let her most ardent supporters down easy -- she asked Fox News host Greta Van Susteren: "Is a title worth it?" She asked: "Does a title shackle a person?"
It could be a dismaying way to see political office. But it may also be evidence of a simple self-awareness, and an appreciation of the different ways one might play a role in public life.
We all have our parts to play: There are more expressly political roles; there are roles that are a mix of political rallying, education and entertainment. There is pure service, pure stewardship. Some are more focused on using creative talent, and some seek full-on cultural engagement. And it's not all on C-SPAN or ABC, a podium or the silver screen. All of us have a call -- a desire that some recognize as being put on our hearts as a gift, as a mission.
Just ask Bill Simon. A funny thing happened when I spoke with him recently.
It was in the heat of the debt-ceiling debate in Washington this summer. Simon, a noted businessman, philanthropist, politician and son of a former U.S. Treasury secretary, was on the phone. I had to ask him about the debate, about how Washington was handling things. Simon was polite, sharing his opinions and concerns about the necessity of fundamental reform. But it was impossible not to notice that while he was happy to help a writer in need, he had much more important things on his mind, issues of a much more fundamental and enduring nature.
He was raised in a big Catholic family, but he had fallen away, had gotten married and divorced. He writes in his new book, "Living the Call" (co-authored by Michael Novak) that he had had fleeting moments of piousness, as he "yearned for greater spiritual engagement, but that feeling would usually disappear amid the business of life."
He explains in the book: "About a dozen years ago, with some significant professional and material success under my belt, I began to feel that something was missing, that maybe these things in my life -- my family, my faith, and my career -- shouldn't be separate."
And so, as he is happy to tell you, he started to pray. He started to encounter the richness of his Catholic faith. "The Catholic Church has had 2,000 years of thinkers and traditions that are every bit as relevant today as they ever were," he told me in our conversation.
He is now 59, and he says it wasn't until the last decade or so that he realized God calls us all to play a role in our families, in our places of business, in our communities and in our churches.
"I don't feel like I should devote the bulk of the rest of my life to getting a greater return on my financial investments. I want to make a positive difference in people's lives. I have found a calling," he said. He is utterly convinced that his work now is to get people to focus on eternal business. And the book he's written isn't even about his story -- it's about the various ways that everyday people live out their beliefs. Because there are tremendous opportunities to lovingly serve our brothers and sisters; we don't all have to go to Calcutta. There are tremendous opportunities to serve our brothers and sisters all around us, doing small things with great love close to home.
There is a sense out there that we have lost focus. In their own ways, both the tea party political groups and the more recent Occupy Wall Street movement are expressions of this concern, one that goes beyond mere policy. What needs to occupy our minds and souls is the thing that Simon wishes he had known all along: that we all have our roles, in church, in the culture and in our homes as much as in politics. And our roles need to be rooted in and headed toward something beyond the next business deal or election. Real moral courage and leadership tends to run deep, inspired by something beyond our egos.
Simon has taken on a much different role than he's previously played or sought: He's not shackled by titles. He's responding to a call, and nourished by the wisdom of the ages. It's beyond the headlines, with the power to write new ones. It's a power that everyone can wield, if they so choose.