Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin recently said something both profound and essential. As she was nearing her decision not to launch a presidential campaign — appearing to discern what role she could best play in national affairs, and perhaps preparing to let her most ardent supporters down easy — she asked Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, “Is a title worth it? Does a title shackle a person?” She continued: “Does a title take away my freedom to call it like I see it and to affect positive change that we need in this country? That’s the biggest contemplation piece in my process.”
Such questions could be interpreted as indicative of a dismaying attitude toward public service. But they may also demonstrate an admirable self-awareness, and a keen appreciation of the different ways one might play a role in public life.
We all have our roles. There are expressly political roles; there are roles that are a mix of political rallying, education, and entertainment; there is purse service — donation and stewardship. Some are more focused on using creative talent, and some seek full-on cultural engagement. And we are not all destined for C-SPAN or ABC, for a podium, or for the silver screen. But all of us have a call — a desire that we may recognize as having been put in our heart as a gift, as a mission.
Just ask Bill Simon.
A funny thing happened when I was on the phone with him this summer. In the heat of the debt-ceiling debate, I had called to ask him about the debate, about how Washington was handling things. Simon was polite, sharing his opinion, sharing his concern for the need for 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, things of a much more fundamental and enduring nature.
Simon is known as a successful businessman, a philanthropist, briefly a politician (he ran for governor of California in 2002), and the son of a former U.S. Treasury secretary. He was raised in a big Catholic family but had subsequently fallen away. He writes in his new book, Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation (coauthored with Michael Novak), that he had had fleeting moments of piety, as he “yearned for greater spiritual engagement, but that feeling would usually disappear amid the busyness of life.”
Then, he explains, “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 maybe the balance among the three wasn’t quite right.”
And so, as he is happy to tell you, he started to pray. He started to encounter the richness of his Catholic faith. He started to read St. Francis de Sales, for the first time. “The Catholic Church has had 2,000 years of thinkers and traditions that are every bit as relevant today as they ever were,” he tells me — something that, about a dozen years ago, “a cradle Catholic was discovering for the first time.”
He is now 59, and he now realizes that there is a role in his Church for the laity, that God calls us all to play a role in our families, in our places of business, in our communities.
“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,” he says. “I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I have found a calling.” He is utterly convinced that his work now is to get people to focus on eternal business. The book he has written isn’t about his story — it’s about the various ways in which lay people that you may pass on the street today live out what they believe. We won’t all go to Calcutta, but there are real opportunities to serve our brothers and sisters all around us, doing small things with great love close to home, and answering more sweeping calls.
There is a sense out there that we have lost focus. In their own ways, both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement are expressions of this concern, one that goes beyond mere policy. What needs to occupy our minds and our souls is what 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 the next election. Real moral courage and leadership runs deep, inspired by something beyond ourselves.
Simon now talks enthusiastically about The Imitation of Christ, a treasure trove of practical spiritual pointers, and a book he wishes he had known about much earlier. Bill Simon now has a very different role from any he had previously played or sought. He is not shackled by titles. He is responding to a call, and nourished by the wisdom of the ages. It’s beyond the headlines, with the power to make new ones.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.