The nature of bliss, with Rev Tim Costello

TimCostello.jpg-0904_Size4“I think bliss is the sense that your life has been for a purpose,” said the Reverend Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision, when I spoke to him back in the days when he was still head of the Baptist Church in Collins Street, Melbourne. After the interview he headed out into the back alleyway behind the church buildings to the soup kitchen he had set up to feed the city’s poor, after telling me: “In a world where 40,000 kids die each day from preventable diseases, surely political and spiritual imagination might have a go at that problem, and say why don’t we solve this? There’s wonderful challenges out there to have a go at.”

H: What does the phrase Follow Your Bliss mean to you?

TC: For me it means the deepest part of your being, the part of you that gives you energy, vitality, that you intuitively respond to. It’s that part of you that makes you say “yes, that’s what I want to give myself to, that’s a cause I believe in, that’s the direction in which I’m travelling”.

H. What’s your personal journey been in following your bliss? Have you always known what you were going to do?

TC. I always had a strong sense that I wouldn’t live a life where my own comfort and happiness would be a priority. I always had a strong feeling of obligation, of service…

In the early days, my faith was very much religious, in that it was an experience of faith – that I had been loved, or touched, or saved; and that I needed to tell others about that. So it was very evangelistic.

But as I matured, I thought there’s not much point in being a Christian just so that you can convince others to become Christians, so that they can join the great U2 concert in the sky! It actually should mean disturbing the status quo here and now: transforming the inequality, the violence that is here now. So I started to want to make a difference to the way we live here and now, and particularly for those in poverty, people who are trapped in poverty and can’t climb out.

So it’s always been something beyond myself, an external that I felt harnessed by and galvanised by.

H. Can you actually remember particular events, or milestones from your childhood, moments of enlightenment, I guess, where you realised you were on a certain path, and which kept you on that path?

TC. Yeah. My childhood was set in a context of both family and church which said very clearly that God has a plan for your life. And there is a purpose for why you are here. And you have the task of discovering that purpose. And you need to attend to that through prayer, discipline, talking to elders, through being aware that there is a divine plan for what you should do.

So there were moments when I had a strong sense of illuminance, or moments of God breaking in and giving me a sense of direction. The most significant was when I was about 17 and at a Christian conference, and I had a quite overwhelming sense of spirit. I was shaking, in a very clear headed space, thinking this is why I am here, to actually be a person who is concerned for others, committed to proclaiming that there is another way of living than just personal happiness and self-interest. It was a very religious, spiritual experience. And it shook me. I left feeling very sure that my life was not going to be out to accumulate money or fame or whatever. There were other moments, but that was the very significant one.

H. So, you went straight from high school into the seminary?

TC. No, no. I went to university and did Law, and practised Law for a few years. Then I went to the seminary, and the Baptist Theological College in Switzerland, Zurich actually. That was a very important experience, because there were 25 different nationalities living in the college from all parts of Europe, Africa and America. And it gave me an extraordinary sense of how culture is so nuanced, of how the faith I had would take very different expression depending on what the culture was.

Then when I came back to Australia I accepted a call to the little Baptist church in St Kilda, which had about 12 or 15 members. I opened a legal office in the front to support my family. The church would only pay me for a day a week. And the legal office and the ministry were essentially what I did for the next 10 years. I worked as a lawyer/minister. And along the way I developed a church community that grew to a couple of hundred people. We started a range of things: a house for homeless kids (which is still running), a special commune for people with psychiatric disabilities, a place called the House of Hope, which is a street church and a luncheon program – a whole range of things came out of that church. I ended up mayor of St Kilda, on a platform of putting more public housing into St Kilda for those who were long-term residents and who were being forced out by the price rises. We were the first council in Australia to put dollars into public housing. So they were the main things that we set up.

H. In your book [Tips from a Travelling Soul Searcher Allen & Unwin, 1999] you talk about Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech, and how he said it’s not our weaknesses that we’re really afraid of, it’s our power, and what might be asked of us if we follow that path. What does that mean in terms of your own path?

TC. I have always felt that my pursuit isn’t about personal happiness. It’s always been faith, or transforming society, being committed to something beyond myself. I’m often struck how in conversations, you know you’re sitting around and chatting, and it becomes clear to me that I seem to think differently to other people. Other people sit around and say, I’m tired, I’m taking some time off. And I think, I’m tired too, but actually I’m really NOT, because I’ve got these things to take care of, things to do for these people, for that issue…

And I don‘t think I’ll ever burn out. I think I’ll burn on, in some sense – though I might burn out people around me! I’m often just struck that the path that I have chosen has given me great joy along the way. But it hasn’t been aimed at happiness and joy; it’s been aimed at living an engaged, responsible life by virtue of service to others. That’s always been very clear to me.

H. And it’s that service to others that keeps enough fire burning inside you to energise you to keep going?

TC. And changes in the institutions that I have come into contact with. This one, for example, was a very traditional church with two Sunday morning services and that’s all. And now it feeds 50 or 60 street people in our back lane. It’s a bit of a haven for people who are homeless and knocked about. This has become an institution that serves the most vulnerable, rather than one that serves the most powerful!

H. How can people get to that point where they do follow their bliss?

TC. Above all, it takes character. A number of people get glimpses of what their bliss is, but the path is too hard. There are knocks. There are cynics, there are people who laugh and say, well, why would you ever do that?! I think in our culture, there’s a lot of individualism out there. On one level, I think we are competing individuals; at another level, I don’t think we have many individuals. I think we have a very conformist culture that is driven around, and I call it this in my book, this wealth-damned inner story, that says, being wealthy, being comfortable, not being stressed is what life is all about.

I think it actually takes courage to swim against that, to say those cultural norms, which may be parental, social, peer group, are probably going to suffocate my bliss. It takes a lot of courage to actually say no, I’m going to have a go at this and stick it out.

So I think courage is the biggest thing. I think a lot of people have strong inklings about what they want to do. But there’s too many other, utterly reasonable, but at the end of the day, quite deadening, reasons why you don’t follow your bliss.

H. I read an article you wrote, about suicide. Do you think that people are despairing because they are not following their bliss? Not looking inside for the answers?

TC. The strange paradox is that I suspect that as prosperity increases, despair increases. When you have to struggle, when things are tough, you actually have purpose. It’s like the druggies we work with who say, when you I’m clean and straight, what do I do? To actually have $200 a day habit gives you a purpose! When it’s taken away from you, there’s this cultural nihilism that says, is there anything worth doing? Other than just trying to be comfortable.

I think prosperity takes away the basic struggles that have to do with having a roof over your head and food on the table. People are left with some very profound questions, and a vacuum – I mean, what actually is worth doing?

I think there are some extraordinary things to have a go at! I think in a world where 40,000 kids die each day from preventable diseases, and where so much food is stockpiled that we have to destroy it and yet there are people starving, surely political and spiritual imagination might have a go at that problem, and say why don’t we really solve this? There’s wonderful challenges out there to have a go at.

But I think the nature of our culture is to anesthetise one’s nerve. So that you don’t actually have a go at these big things, or other things. And what you end up doing is too small a purpose in life. Too self interested. Too uninspired. And life itself becomes very grey.

There’s wonderful choices entertainment-wise, you know, but the spirit is deadened. So I think that that’s part of the answer. In that article I argued that all the things that have been good about our culture on one level – secularism, independence, self-sufficiency – actually have their shadow side.

H. What steps can a person take to learn more about their bliss and how to follow it?

TC. I think the people who are journeying with you, your friends, are the ones to help you identify what your bliss is. They’re the ones who see the light come on when certain topics or possibilities are discussed. And they might say, well, why don’t you have a go at this? And your first response tends to be, no, that’s not me! And they might say, well, why isn’t it you?

I think, some types of friends, and increasingly spiritual directors – because these kinds of questions are profoundly spiritual, they have to do with the human spirit – can help map that. They don’t give you the answers, but they help you plot the sort of movement of your own spirit, until you get enough courage to name it, and can say, well, this is what I should really do.

I think some people are lucky enough to know… Others really need to have tryst with a counsellor, or a spiritual director. Someone who isn’t treating it as a problem that you are searching.

H. What ultimately is bliss? Have a go at that one!

TC. I think bliss is the sense that your life has been for a purpose, that it’s been worthwhile. It’s a cosmic or ontological alignment with the very structures of reality….

The sub-physicists are telling us that in the very universe itself there is purpose, there is destiny, there is something that is built in. And we come across that in all sorts of intuitive ways… Just the earliest cry as a kid “That’s not fair!”. Well, where does this concept of fairness come from? If we are just biological freaks in a cosmic zoo? Highly developed animals in the predatory range? Why would there be any appeal to a transcendent notion of fairness? I’d answer it religiously. Others would answer it in a different way, like Paul Davies [the English physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist], who would say there is purpose and destiny built into the universe.

I think that bliss is actually in a cosmic way, aligning yourself with that purpose. Saying “there is purpose in my life”, and it has meant having to amputate lots of other choices and pleasures and things I might have done, whether it’s accumulating wealth or experience, but living with some focus that actually, in the deepest recesses of my being, something resonates and says yes. This is what I’m about, and my life is about, and feeling confident in that.