At age 49, I had an aching sense that I wasn’t living up to my full potential. Although I loved the flexibility and intellectual stimulation of being a writer, I knew there was something more I was meant to do with my life. A friend said, “You will find the place where you can use your gifts, Eileen, because you have really amazing gifts.” That evening, when I tried to tell my husband what my friend had said, I burst out crying.
My friend’s comment, and the emotion it triggered, got me wondering what gifts I wasn’t using. I remembered a personal coach once asking me, “What can you do easily that other people find difficult, something that you could do before anyone taught you how?”
“Facilitate a group,” I’d answered without needing to think about it.
When I was appointed high school yearbook editor, the yearbook company representative warned me that most of my classmates would bail when the semester got busy, and I would be left doing most the work with one or two others. My teachers agreed, hinting that the previous editor had ended up overwhelmed. Somehow I knew it didn’t need to be that way. Instead of trying to have all the ideas and do all the work, I focused on building a team where other people brought forward their creativity. I ordered pizza and made the atmosphere inviting, and the whole yearbook staff carried the workload without ever missing a deadline.
As I looked back, I realized that I’d often been asked to play leadership roles. In addition to yearbook editor, I was appointed high school Outing Club President. When I worked for a nonprofit in my twenties, I’d been promoted into management quickly. After I became a writer, I was asked to serve in volunteer leadership roles in my congregation, my precinct, and my children’s school. Lately I’d been asked to serve on so many boards I’d declined most of the requests, though I’d started wondering if they were clues about the gifts I was meant to be using. Like many women, I had resisted thinking of myself as a leader.
Part of the reason I didn’t feel very powerful was that I had accepted too many volunteer commitments over the years, making my schedule hectic and my energy dispersed. I started to say no to anything that felt like a drain (like the school hot dog sale), making space for the new work I sensed was coming.
I had always loved nature, from my years in the Girl Scouts to that high school Outing Club, and for years had been reading environmental news with growing concern. In the midst of my mid-life angst, I stumbled on a local, grassroots group working to stop the financing of mountaintop removal coal mining, a devastating practice that contributed to cancer and birth defects in Appalachia as well as climate change everywhere. The cause tapped my love of mountains and my concern for my own children, one of whom had asthma, which was exacerbated by burning coal.
I volunteered to lead the networking committee for a large, upcoming event. The task tapped skills I already had, like facilitating and writing, while challenging me to learn about the issue and the creative tactics that the group used during their nonviolent protests, such as street theatre. My writing shifted from a focus on spirituality to sustainability, integrating my professional and volunteer work for the first time in my life.
In the three and a half years since I joined the environmental group, I’ve taken on many new roles: speaking to a crowd of 800; writing press releases; helping the organization think about how to share the work; becoming the board chair, and publishing a book on my journey to climate change activism. I’ve gotten to use my gifts while developing new skills in a supportive community, all while working for a cause that feels incredibly important. It’s a yearning common among many women, I’ve realized: to use the abilities we’ve been given in the service of something greater than ourselves. Admitting that we have unused gifts is the first step.
Photo by Hoài Anh Bino