In a recent column, I asked readers if they had discovered a purpose in life and, if so, how they had discovered it. A few thousand wrote essays. I was struck by how elemental life is. Most people found their purpose either through raising children or confronting illness or death.
Scott Addington writes, “As is often the case, my purpose became clearly evident after I had stopped looking for it. On Oct. 11, 1995, my daughter was born. Beginning with that moment, there has never been the slightest doubt regarding the purpose and source of meaning in my life. Being a father is the most meaningful and rewarding pursuit a man could ever hope to experience.”
Not only in parenting, but also in teaching. The essays from teachers ring with special clarity and force. Many of them see clearly how their day-to-day activities are in line with their ultimate end. This has its downside after people leave teaching.
Carolyn from Michigan writes, “Before class, I sometimes would sit in the chair of a student who was having a lot of trouble and pray that I might be a blessing to him that day. Yes, for 37 years I was a teacher, the last 25 as a high school special education teacher. That was my purpose; that was my calling.
“But now I am retired, and I am adrift. What is my purpose now? I struggle with it every day. When I was teaching, I would bound out of bed at 6:15 every morning. Now I wake early, but stay under the covers, filled with a world’s worth of anxiety. It might have been better had I died while trying to teach students with learning disabilities the basics of geometry.”
Quite frequently purpose emerges from loss. Greg Sunter from Brisbane, Australia, writes: “Four years ago, my wife of 21 years passed away as the result of a brain tumor. Her passage from diagnosis to death was less than six months. As shocking as that time was, almost as shocking was the sense of personal growth and awakened understanding that has come from the experience for me through reflection and inner work — to a point that I feel almost guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife’s death.
“In his book ‘A Hidden Wholeness,’ Parker Palmer writes about the two ways in which our hearts can be broken: the first imagining the heart as shattered and scattered; the second imagining the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. The image of the heart broken open has become the driving force of my life in the years since my wife’s death. It has become the purpose to my life.”
Some people’s lives organize around a certain role or calling. “My moniker could be ‘formidable advocate,’ ” writes Georgian Lussier. After her brother suffered a brain injury, she learned to help people work through the maze of the health care system. Now she helps older women find work.
But, for many people, the purpose of life is simply to live it fully. Many people don’t necessarily see their lives as pointing toward God or as defined by some mission statement. They seek to drink in life at full volume, to experience and help others richly.
Jae Brown was driving after smoking weed and drinking when he was pulled over. He confessed everything to the cop, who saw that Brown was in college and whispered, “Don’t let your friends get you in trouble you can’t get yourself out of,” and let him go. “My purpose in life,” Brown writes, “is to mentor, provide that whisper in someone’s ear that changes their life.”
The great struggle in essay after essay is to remain emotionally vital and intellectually alive.
Zachary Krowitz, 21, read the essays written in response to the column and concluded that “this desire for something that is surely true is present in all of us, and reflects an attempt to know what we really want. … Unfortunately, based both on the essays written in response to your column and common experience, such meaning is often lost as one travels through life, emotions become duller and less clear.”
Alayne Crossman, 42, is able to keep her emotion flowing at full pitch. “Without the love of my family I wouldn’t be who I am today. It means I cry during ‘Frozen,’ every single time. It means I cry when I listen to Van Morrison’s ‘Ancient Highway.’ I am ridiculously sentimental because I choose to remain open to this vast, messy thing we call life.”
For many people, the purpose of life is to have more life. That may not have defined people’s purpose in past eras, when it might have had more to do with the next life, or obedience to a creed. But many today seek to live with hearts wide open.