The picture is of me with a very dear friend of mine, Carrie. You might recognize her from photos from my column about my trip to Lourdes. Carrie is a counselor, she has a podcast and blog called “I Choose Grit,” and she is one of the most inspiring witnesses of everyday heroism and joy in the midst of suffering that I have ever encountered. She is on the list of people who inspire me, along with a broad range of people including such disparate figures as St. Joseph and Mark Rober (former NASA engineer turned YouTube influencer). Making a list of people I admire has taught me a lot about what holiness actually is and what that looks like concretely in my life.
When I was a first-year missionary, I was given that assignment: to write out a list of people I admire and pay attention to the traits they share. The list I wrote was of maybe 15 people, a mixture of saints, friends, artists, etc. Putting all those people next to each other, so to speak, made me notice things about them. Many of them were quiet and thoughtful, but also gently confident and joyful — a combination of characteristics that added up to something indefinable, and the only word I could think to describe it was radiant. A word that had been nice but vague before it became concretely beautiful when it was drawn from real people. From that new understanding of radiance came also a new life and reality to my previously limp conception of what it means to be holy. Having an understanding of holiness that is attractive and full of life has been incredibly helpful.
I revisited this exercise recently and, even years after it had made such a substantial impact on my life, it was helpful to do it again. This time, I made some more distinctions. The list of people I admire was broader and longer, but there were some sub-categories.
Among people I admire, there are people whose lives are not anything like the life I want to build. An example of this would be the YouTuber MrBeast. He is one of the most radically generous people I’ve ever heard of, and I admire what he is doing greatly. His style of humor, of creativity and of life in general is very different from mine — it’s chaotic and explosive and goofy. It matches who he is. He has found a way to make the world a better place and he does it in a style that matches the unique gifts and desires of the person God made him to be — and that is something I admire and to which I also aspire.
There are other people who I disagree with on some, or even, many points, people who have made lifestyle choices that make me sad, or done any number of other things that deserve an asterisk on my list. On the other hand, no one on my list (other than Jesus and Mary) was actually perfect, and I think it’s important to be able to see the good in every person and to honor it. So there are people on my list who might scandalize you. Dax Shepherd is a recovering alcoholic and a flagrant atheist, he swears constantly, and his podcast (Armchair Expert) is rife with graphic humor. He also has this profound gift for bringing out the most interesting and real side of every person he talks to. One of his guests called this “inverse charisma,” not that he is not charismatic in his own right, but his superpower is that he helps the people around him come to life. He is deeply fascinated by every person, and it comes out in a very natural and down to earth way of honoring them. I think this gift is also related to the other characteristic I particularly admire in him, that he is utterly open and real — completely himself. It reminds me of the line in the Gospel that “there is no guile in him.” He is another who will not be a lifestyle role model for me, but his way of honoring people is somewhat closer to my particular calling. He teaches me something profound about how to honor people well and uniquely in everyday life, and I can begin to extrapolate from his way of living these values and learn how to live them in my own way.
There are other people who, while still not perfect, have even more in common with the person I want to be. Obviously, no two people have exactly the same call, but there are those who have more similarities to me — whether in personality, background, gifts, desires or all the above, the people who I more explicitly and closely want to emulate. Artists and writers, saints and personal friends. People like J.R.R. Tolkien who, in many ways, lived a very ordinary life but also managed to create something so beautiful that it still changes lives (including mine) to this day. Like Tristan Harris, whose thoughtfulness during his time working at Google has launched him into becoming one of the foremost advocates for technology that cares about the good of the human person. Or my friend Carrie.
When I wrote the list this time, the characteristics that emerged were even more specific than before. I found that the people I admire the most have some combination of these traits: they place a certain centrality on honoring the value and dignity of the human person; many of them have found a creative and even unusual way to live that allows them to exercise their unique gifts; they are thoughtful; they are at once grounded in the reality of suffering while also genuinely hopeful; and they are free and fully themselves.
This exercise repeatedly has taught me so much about holiness. The first time, I learned concretely that holiness is beautiful and full of life. The second time, I homed in on some of the specific qualities that characterize the holiness that I am uniquely called to. If your idea of holiness is somewhat flat and lifeless or if you are trying to understand who it is that God has uniquely created you to be, I would particularly recommend this exercise to you. But, regardless of who you are or where you are in your life, it is worth reflecting specifically on the people who inspire you.