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Bestselling Open Field Author Miroslav Volf Wrote the Defining Guide to Discovering Your Life’s Purpose—and He Wants All of Us to Kick Off 2024 Focused on This One Thing

Bestselling Open Field Author Miroslav Volf Wrote the Defining Guide to Discovering Your Life’s Purpose—and He Wants All of Us to Kick Off 2024 Focused on This One Thing

By Meghan Rabbitt
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If you’re like most people, you made a few New Year’s resolutions for 2024. And no matter what your intentions, they are likely aimed at helping you succeed in the art of living—whatever that means for you. 

Miroslav Volf and his Yale University colleagues, Matthew Croasmun and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, have been helping people consider what it means to live a good life for many years—first in their highly sought-after course at Yale and then in their bestselling book, both named Life Worth Living.

Which is why The Sunday Paper wanted to sit down with Volf this week, a time when so many of us are feeling inspired by the beginning of a new year, taking stock of where we are in our lives, and considering what we’d like to change. 

“When we find ourselves at any significant juncture in life, we ask ourselves, What now? Where should I point the arrow of my longing?” says Volf. “These are such important questions. They are alive, deep down in all of us, and wrestling with them makes our souls alive.”

Keep reading for our conversation—and for Volf’s best advice to help you make sure your actions are aligned with what your soul longs for most.


This time of year, many of us focus on setting goals, yet we don’t necessarily ask: Why am I pursuing this goal? How can understanding the why behind our resolutions can help us live more meaningful lives?

It’s crucial, especially when it comes to the orientation of our lives, to ask the question: “Why? What makes this particular goal worth striving for?” 

Many people have a variety of changes they’d like to make at the start of a new year, and they usually revolve around our physical well-being. We can often sum up these resolutions in terms of health and longevity, which are connected. Those are my goals as well: exercise most days of the week, eat well, sleep enough, and so on. But there are things that matter more. 

I was recently reading a text by Rabbi Abraham Heschel about death. He assumes, of course, that we all want to avoid death. But then he comes to something that really startled me: He speaks of the persons whose souls have died while their bodies continued to go on in a healthy way. The image is stark, and it prompted me to ask: What does it mean for soul to die in a well-trained, healthy body?  What does it mean for my soul to be truly alive? What does it mean for me, for my humanity, to be alive? 

Asking why is really important in part because it can nudge us to care for our soul, for our interior life, for the beauty of our character.

How can we dance with this question of what our soul needs? 

I can speak to this in relationship to my own resolutions for 2024. 

More often than not, when we strive in life, we strive to be better than someone else. We rejoice and think we are somebody when we’ve achieved that goal; we suffer and feel inferior when we haven’t. We constantly go through life making these kinds of comparisons and striving to be superior. 

But I think I mislead myself—and I’m often misled—when I think the important thing for who I am, for my soul, for what I have and what I do, is determined in comparison with others. So, my first resolution this year is this: “I will seek to strive toward that which I consider to be truly good; I will avoid striving to be better or superior to anyone else.” 

Because our entire lives are consumed by striving—striving to be better than somebody else, or, if we are wise, striving to be excellent in some area—we’re never really satisfied. Or we never really come to rest, where we feel that we are good enough and that we have enough. In all our successes, and not just in failures, we remain malcontented.

And so my second resolution is this: “I will take regular time—a day in a week, an hour in a day—to delight in what I already have. I will stop longing for something I don’t have and focus on longing for what I actually have.” 

It’s a paradoxical thing to long for that which we already have. But if we don’t long for what is beautiful and wonderful in our lives, we will never truly enjoy it. Training myself in the regular habit of longing for what I have is something I want to do more of this year. Striving for what is truly good and longing for the good we already have will make our soul alive.  

For those who don’t feel like they are where they want to be in life, what’s the first step toward making a change? And is there anything we shouldn’t do when we feel lost?

About 30 years ago, I was in London attending a conference and ran into a very famous German professor at the hotel where most of the conference attendees were staying. We had to get to a conference venue and he suggested we walk. I thought, Great, I’ll have chance to chat with the professor whom I have admired since I was 17 on our way. We start walking and talking, but pretty soon his pace quickened and there was a kind of puzzlement in his in his eyes. He wouldn’t tell me this, but he was lost. And his response to lostness was to increase the pace of walking. 

Eventually we stopped and hailed a cab, and we were at the venue in no time. If you’ve ever been to London, you know that the cab drivers there are incredibly knowledgeable about the city. 

I think this illustrates what’s often true in our lives. You might have an intuitive sense that you should know where you are going, and you have this confidence about yourself and think if you press a little bit further, you’ll get there. But deep down, you know it’s not likely going to work. That’s when we need to step back, reorient ourselves, think about how to grasp where we have taken a wrong turn, and consider how to come back to the course or find a new course in order to live truly fulfilled lives.

I believe all of us could benefit from a really competent cab driver to help us when we’re lost. In some ways, that’s what we try to do in our book, A Life Worth Living. We gathered resources from very competent “cab drivers” from many spiritual backgrounds to help us refine our life’s goals and to move toward them with both intention and with the knowledge that moving toward them is actually where we are supposed to be.

How do you notice when your actions aren’t aligned with what your soul longs for? And what do you do to change course?

This is a very important question. We need a sense of attunement with ourselves so we can notice the signs where we are going wrong. Ideally, you want to have this realization early, rather than finding yourself in some deep mess and then realizing, Wow, this is terrible and I’ve gone wrong way back when.

I think one of the first things to do is to pay attention to small deviations. This doesn’t take a long time. A bit of introspection in the morning, a bit of introspection in the evening. And then have the courage to bang your palm to your forehead and say, What an idiot! How could you have done that? How could I have been spending all this money “for what is not bread,” for what does not feed me but poisons me? How could I have labored so hard for what does not satisfy? And then take the steps necessary to change the course of your life. 

Or maybe you come to the realization that you haven’t acted rightly towards someone. That’s an opportunity to ask for forgiveness. Rather than letting many small transgressions mount and then in the future justify even greater transgressions, I attend to them early on and have courage to say, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.How can I make things right?

In restoring something for others what your wrongdoing has taken away, you are actually also restoring the health of your own soul, waking from stupor, making sure it does not die.

It feels harder than ever to do this attuning in our modern day lives. Do you think that’s true? And how can we overcome the difficulty and find that attunement anyway?

In the movie Maestro, there’s an early conversation the filmmakers say was transcribed from an actual interview Leonard Bernstein had with a reporter. Bernstein was asked about the different parts of his life. He started talking about himself as a performer, which was living out the extroverted side of him, and then as a composer, which was a kind of a rich landscape of interiority that one must Inhabit to be creative. 

We all—not just great composers or performers—live interior and exterior lives. Increasingly, the exterior life is dominating, choking the interior life. We live outside of ourselves, either performing in our small ways for others or observing those performances and adjusting our lives to those performances—whether that’s on social media or in other domains of our lives. 

But the space where we can be inside ourselves and be creative? The space where we look inside, where we can craft our souls and see what’s malforming them? That space, that time, has shrunk for us. And so I think it’s important to have disciplines that help us create a space so that attention to our own inner life can occur. That’s how we can see where course corrections are necessary—and more than simply see them, try to rectify what might be amiss. 

Your book, Life Worth Living, was an instant New York Times bestseller. As you talk to readers, are there trends in what you hear people saying about how they’re using the book to make changes in their lives? Has any of the feedback surprised you?

I was mainly surprised by the wide diversity of people who found the book really helpful. The book is based on a course for undergraduate students, an audience of 19- to 23-year-olds. 

We heard from readers who just got married and were trying to figure out, What are our joint values? We heard from people who just had a child and had the same question. We heard from many people in mid-life, or even a little bit older, who found the book helpful and who organized reading groups around the book. I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising, because when we find ourselves at any significant juncture in life, we ask ourselves, What now? Where should I point the arrow of my longing?

These are such important questions. They are alive, deep down in all of us, and wrestling with them makes our souls alive.

Meghan Rabbitt

Meghan Rabbitt is a Senior Editor at The Sunday Paper. Learn more at:

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