A Special Purpose
In my role as chaplain, I meet with patients who have survived one health crisis after another. Some have lived through accidents or overdoses. They sometimes tell me they think God kept them alive for a reason, that they have something special left to do. They just need to figure out what it is.
In the Bible, God is quite specific when he has a mission for one of the patriarchs. He gave Noah exact instructions about the ark, told Abraham where to go and why, and spoke to Moses throughout his ministry. Today, God seems much more obscure.
Hearing A Call
My own call to ministry came as a voice in my head, totally unlike the drone of my own internal conversation. While sitting in the pews of a Unitarian Universalist sanctuary, listening to someone preaching, I heard, “You’re supposed to be up there.”
Okay. So let’s assume the message came from some deity, a God or angel or other outside force. What the heck did it mean? Should I rush up to the podium and push the preacher aside?
So what? I’m supposed to be a minister?
That’s what I figured, so here I am, a minister. And it feels right.
Nonetheless, the voice said I should be “up there”? I don’t know what that means. Every once in a while, I ask God, or whomever, to give me another clue. I mean, here I am, a chaplain, a spiritual counselor, and the founder of a sort-of congregation that does its best to offer comfort, healing, and company for the journey, but I don’t know if that’s what I’m “supposed to” be doing.
Who Knows Why We’re Here
All this assumes we have some “supposed to,” that we have some meaning to our lives, that we’re called to fulfill a mission or purpose or task. Tonight I asked my husband about his mission, and he said he didn’t think he had one. Since he doesn’t believe in God, he doesn’t know who would give him this mission, anyway.
When I pressed him, though, he did admit that perhaps you could say we all have a collective mission to make the world a little bit better before we die.
That’s what I think of when patients say God must have something special in mind for them. If we enter into that individual’s worldview and assume there’s a God, and that this God either saves our life or doesn’t, and that saving happens when a person has a task yet to perform, it still doesn’t follow that the task must be momentous or even noteworthy. Nor does it necessarily follow that any of us will ever know what that task or purpose is.
Performing Acts of Kindness
On the chabad.org website, Chaya Sarah Silberberg argues in her article, “Why Don’t I Know My Life Mission?,” that God won’t reveal our purpose to us because if we knew what God wanted, life would be too easy. We wouldn’t be tested or challenged. Additionally, if we knew our purpose, we’d probably focus on it so much that we’d neglect other important aspects of our life, such as family, friends, prayer, charity, and kindness. 
Indeed, what if God put us on Earth just so we could perform small acts of kindness? Wouldn’t that mean that when we saw an opportunity to perform a simple mitzvah or good deed, we should welcome it, no matter how small, because it might be the very reason for which we were created?
Maybe our life purpose looks small and insignificant, but has a value far greater than we will ever know. A glance, a word, a smile, a scowl, a gesture can all change a person’s day, and perhaps her life. If this is true, then no matter how inept or ugly or lonely or nasty we are, we could have a part to play in God’s plan. For many, this thought is comforting.
On the other hand, if my patients’ assumptions are correct, when we’ve completed the kindness God created us for, we will, having nothing left in the world to do, die. This may be a little less comforting. Yet there’s no proof it’s true. In at least one folk tale, a man fulfills an important mission and manages to survive.
Lazy Jack is a ne’er do well. Though grown up, he still lives at home with his mother, but does nothing to contribute to the household. Finally fed up, his mother insists he either gets a job or gets out.
So Jack hauls himself off the couch and looks for someone who will hire him for the day. Each day he works for a different boss: a farmer, or butcher, or cheese maker.
When he is paid with a penny, he carries the penny home in his fist, dropping it in the stream when he stops to gaze at the flowing water. Exasperated, his mother tells him that next time he gets paid, he should put it in his pocket.
The next day, a dairy farmer pays him with a can of milk. Putting the milk in his pocket, he strides home, only to discover that almost all the milk has sloshed out while he walked. Exasperated, his mother tells him he should have carried the milk can on his head.
So when he’s given a round of cheese, he does carry it on his head, only to have it melt all over his hair. His exasperated mother tells him he should have carried the cheese in his hands.
His next employer pays him with a cat, which he tries to carry in his hands. However, the cat scratches him, jumps down, and runs away. His mother tells him he should have put a rope around the cat and dragged it home that way.
Then he receives a hunk of meat, so Jack drags it home, only to discover the meat that remains is inedible. He should have carried the meat on his shoulder, his mother tells him.
Jack Finds Meaning and Purpose
Finally, Jack is paid with a donkey. With a great heave of effort, Jack, hoists the beast onto his shoulders.
Now, it so happens, that in the village lives a young woman who is beautiful and kind, but who can’t hear, doesn’t speak, and has never laughed. The doctors say that her hearing and speech will never return if she laughs. In desperation, her father offers her hand in marriage to any man who can get her to laugh, but none has ever been able to.
The young woman is looking out her window just as Jack staggers down the street, carrying the donkey. Seeing him, she bursts out laughing, and at that moment, her hearing and speech return. Jack marries the woman, and he and his old mother live in the big house with her and her family, and everyone is happy ever after.
For Such a Moment as This
Could this be Jack’s purpose in life, to cure a young woman’s deafness? He’s a buffoon. He can’t do anything right. Does he feel shame when his mother berates him, or does he simply shrug it off? He listens to her. He tries to please her. Each day, he works hard enough to please his employers and get paid. But he’s not very bright.
Yet sometimes, being smart isn’t what counts. Sometimes what counts is being faithful, or honest, or diligent. At other times, what counts is doing the next right thing. Maybe if we just do the next right thing for long enough, our purpose will find us.
Some of us will wait patiently for that. Others of us will long for some grand and public fanfare. Whether there’s a God who wants us to perform particular acts of kindness or whether we’re simply here through the whim of atoms and quarks, many of us long to feel important. We crave immortality. Whether we find it when our souls rise to some idyllic heaven, or when we pass our genes onto children, or we build a tower or business or symphony, we need to feel our lives have meaning. So we look for something uniquely ours that we can contribute to the world.
Finding Our Meaning and Purpose
In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer talks about the “undivided life.” When we work at a job that betrays our values, or when we try to please others by being someone we’re not, or when we pursue wealth instead of living according to our inner truth, Palmer believes we are divided. When we wake up and claim our inner reality, when we honor the gifts of our individual soul, we have the chance to live as we were meant to.
Palmer isn’t talking, necessarily, about a mystical birthright, a God-given meaning or purpose. He uses Rosa Parks as an example, noting that when she said, “I sat down because I was tired,” she didn’t mean she was physically tired. “She meant that her soul was tired, her heart was tired, her whole being was tired of playing by racist rules, of denying her soul’s claim to selfhood.” 
Our Individualistic Search for Inner Truth
This search for an inner truth, a “claim to selfhood,” aligns well with our individualist culture. In more collectivist cultures, this might not make sense. After all, collectivists do what is expected so they don’t bring shame to their families, or so they can support our tribe. Who we are and what we want, matter less in a collectivist world.
Yet, Parks didn’t sit just for herself. She sat for her people. Although she probably didn’t think of it this way, she sat for our country that needed, and still needs, to heal from a genocidal past. When we refuse to capitulate to oppression and aggression, we take a small step toward peace and justice.
If Silberberg is right, God may have created Parks for that very moment. Hers was a small act that had enormous consequences. For Palmer, it was a defining moment. In that instant, Parks made a choice to act from her center, her truth, her wholeness. Palmer encourages all of us to do the same.
Can We Find Our Purpose?
Acting from my center is not easy. I often fail. Though I try to be faithful to that voice in my head, I don’t really know how. After all, I don’t understand quite what it meant.
At the time, I thought I would be a writer. Instead, I am a minister. Perhaps, in a way, I am both.
Nonetheless, I don’t know if either career is my mission or purpose or reason for being alive. Maybe I’m alive because someday I will touch the heart of someone who will therefore go on to do great things. Or maybe I’m alive so I could be a mother to two sons, or take care of my own mother when she was ill.
For years, I’ve longed to know what work I should focus on, what career I should pursue, what gift I should grow. Like my patients, I had a sense that God had saved me to do something special, if only I could figure out what it was.
Random Acts of Kindness
Today I suspect my mission is more about acting with kindness, generosity, and tenderness to those around me than it is about a particular job or skill. Assuming there’s a God who knows things, then that God is a lot more likely to understand my purpose than I am. If I have a purpose, I must trust God to guide me where I need to go to perform it or say what I need to say to fulfill it. If there is no God, I must still trust that by trying to be as true to myself as possible, I will at the very least do a few things, here and there, to make the world a little bit better. I don’t know of a better mission or purpose than that.
In faith and fondness,
- Silberberg, Chaya Sarah, “Why Don’t I Know My Life Mission?” Chabad.org, 2012.
- Palmer, Parker, Let Your Life Speak, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 33.