For a long time now I’ve tried to live a life of purpose, and words can’t say what that life has meant to me. But lately I’ve been restless, troubled, a certain anxiety and passionlessness weighing me down. So I sit here with my family in church this Easter morning wondering where I am in life, feeling empty and dry, far from the fruitful power of my calling.
I know what’s bothering me. To put it in a nutshell, it’s the imperfection of things. Here I sit, in a sanctified place, with its fragrance of resurrection like the heart-entrancing fragrance of lilies around me. And yet I find myself dwelling on the wrong in the world: crucial work unfinished or unbegun—all that binds or oppresses—the horrors featured night after night on the news—the way materialism and nihilism have captured so many, not to mention garden-variety dysfunction—and, as background to the rest, always the ancient struggle of the poor.
But it isn’t only the world’s imperfection—it’s my own too, the weakness that sometimes dogs me, my tendency to worry, to lose sight of faith. One of our adult sons sits on my right, soon to leave for the Coast Guard. I’m fearful; I know how dangerous that work can be. And I fear the loneliness my wife and daughter and I will feel when he goes, a loneliness we already feel for his older brother, now in grad school in Alaska becoming a teacher. Lately I’ve yearned to have them as little boys again, back when I could always keep them safe and happy. My wife and I knew all along that this day would come, and that it would break our hearts.
Other imperfections gnaw at me too. I’m a writer, a teacher, and a professional storyteller—and in each of these forms of my vocation I’ve encountered, as we all do, much that’s disturbing. A freelance writer’s life is one of risk and unpredictability, and that’s gotten to me lately. Even deeper are my questions about the meaning of the writing life, its potential to achieve its natural purposes. How much am I really accomplishing? How successful am I at my craft, at that transmutation of life into language that has such potential for making the world better, for deepening the human spirit? Am I contributing, or just spinning my wheels? Teaching presents similar frustrations. After all, education is—with the exception of parenting—the single most important labor on the planet. Yet my students don’t always see how crucial their daily efforts are, how vital their preparation. And I hear stories—have been hearing them for years—about bad teachers and the damage they do, belittling children or adolescents, stifling spirits, numbing creativity and curiosity—not to mention the age-old problems of not knowing their material sufficiently or simply killing educational passion through boredom. I glance past my wife at my daughter, a bright-hearted middle-schooler—and I worry.
The service has begun, and the priest’s voice is moving through the words. But I’ve noticed another sound too. When Lent came, that time of waiting, that desert season, someone constructed a fountain-like basin in the middle of the church. It’s a circular well of brick and stucco, about three feet deep, its bottom covered with black river stones, a pump-like spout set above it. It might have stood in Galilee two thousand years ago. Through these long weeks, though, there’s been no water from the spout—only the black stones lying there in the basin, smooth, lifeless, utterly dry.
But when Easter comes, they turn on the water—and now I hear it, behind the coughing and foot-shuffling and general crowd sounds filling the church. A trickling of water over stones. For some reason it rouses me. So I turn my thoughts to purpose, that tentpole of life.
Water flowing in springtime—yes. There’s purpose in that. Whatever science may say about the natural world, however “blind” its forces and mechanisms may be, they contribute to the furtherance of created order and the nurturing and sustaining of life. I’m an animal, I’m getting older, afraid of what I’m losing as nature follows its course; I feel keenly in my own existence this characteristic “imperfection” of the world. And yet even that process is part of the larger purpose, the mysterious on-going quality of the physical universe. The springtime all around me, in the valley where I live, is bursting with purpose, just as the air is filled with blossom fragrance. In whatever mysterious way, I’m part of the Earth, its ancient and always renewed purpose. The joy this kindles in me is very old, very deep.
People continue to argue about the natural world, about evolution, about whether human beings can be reduced to biological processes. It’s obvious to me that they can’t, and obvious too that Darwinian evolution stands in no conflict with an ultimately spiritual view of the origins of things. I think of Yeats’ line in which he refers to his heart as “fastened to a dying animal…” This is biological fact—yet it’s also a fact that the merely physical isn’t enough for us, that something utterly fundamental to our natures drives us beyond such limits, fills us with wonder and yearning. The “big” questions haunt us, pull endlessly at our sleeves like a child with some immense curiosity his nature can’t contain. What ultimately drives the natural world? What lies beyond it? Why are we here? Is death the end? Why do we endlessly seek the divine? My own life—all other forms of being—and beyond them all, within all that is, Something, or Someone—I can’t stop glimpsing this, reaching for it.
From this perspective we see that purpose is found both within the physical world and beyond it, taking on more complex and intense forms when it exists in us, in “human nature.” A human being must first be shaped for purpose, spirit fed in childhood by the satisfaction of physical and emotional needs, mind strengthened by the immense power of education in all its forms (though some great hearts come to purpose, miraculously, out of the direst circumstances). And of course we all need a model or example, someone to show us what purpose is, how it satisfies and enriches our hearts, what a home it can be to us in the world. During adolescence we begin the process of actually seeking purpose, when we begin to wonder who we are and what we’re becoming. This reaches a climax in adulthood as we build a life, start making a “living,” and from there either succeed or fail at finding purpose itself. The task is rarely easy. All of us have certain complications of temperament, and purely practical restraints or problems, that make the process challenging. And many find little guidance from a culture whose mainstream is sometimes awash in images of selfishness, shallow pleasure, greed, materialism, and lust for power.
Besides, even when we answer our higher callings, purpose remains a dynamic force, never simple, never finalized. Finding purpose is a great human challenge—but so is keeping it. Because we all get tired, and heart-blind. And sometimes the very goodness and breadth of a thing are enough to make us, in our weakness, unsure of it.
But there it is again—that sound of water over stones. Ah, how easily I forget, how easily fall into the false belief that the dry time will last forever. Think about the implications, I tell myself, of what you’re saying—that purpose is central to us, to our very humanity! That however difficult it may be to find and hold on to, it inevitably beckons us—and that we turn to it as one of the most natural manifestations of our own potential goodness, our spiritual and moral urges. How fundamental that is, and how beautiful!
Has great wrong been done in the name of religion? Of course. But through it all, human beings continue to act, think and feel in spiritual ways. Seeking, endless seeking—we stand like sunflowers, heliotropes to the Divine—and our seeking combines both the yearning for God “by whatsoever name” as well as the yearning for our own sacred paths, our purposes.
As numberless human beings before me, I can’t help but ask: Why do I exist? What am I supposed to be doing? And my answer comes, an ordinary but precious certainty amid so much uncertainty: I’m a writer, a teacher, a storyteller—these are my paths. Sure, some of my students don’t have the vision they should, or the particular skills—but that’s my job, that’s what I’m supposed to help them with! As far as my writing goes, I can only try, only give it my all.
And how lovely and good are the folktales and other stories I tell—sitting here I smile, feeling again the love I’ve always felt for them, seeing the bright faces of the adults and children I’ve stood before as some astounding narrative passes through me, lingering in richness and power on my own tongue. What purpose is there in storytelling, which many consider mere “entertainment” or fit only for children? I think of a review I saw for Joseph Sobol’s The Storytellers’ Journey, in which our current storytelling revival is described as “an artistic movement whose basic program is the search for myth in a demythologizing age.” I remind my wavering heart that I practice what the reviewer calls “the ancient, unifying art of the storyteller.” Stories, books, poems, and the like—these aren’t just “linguistic phenomena,” as much modern literary theory holds them to be; they’re living, breathing repositories of human desire, fear, wisdom, thought, suffering, belief, and everything else our pilgrim hearts produce. Whether successful or failed, literary works, we might say, are almost human. And, for me at least, beneath their many purposes lies a master purpose, which is the playing out of the human soul in the world, a dance of that which is most essential within us.
Here, though, I find myself weakening again, facing, as many times before, that characteristic fear of the writer: obscurity. Purpose often means that we have to face whatever most radical fear besets us; in my case, that means I have to go on writing and speaking whether anyone’s listening or not.
This fear isn’t only a matter of ego (though it certainly is that)—and it’s not only a practical matter (though I’m still struggling financially, and that struggle affects my family in ways I don’t like to think about). The fear of obscurity is primarily a matter of the meaning of a writer’s existence. What is this thing I’ve given my life to? What value does it have? Have I committed myself to an illusion, or an ego game? But you can’t live like that—no one can, least of all the writer, whose life is uncertain enough already. Whether anyone is listening or not—I cleave to that, and it’s more than mere stoicism. Because it opens onto one of the deepest truths about any real purpose in life: that purpose always makes demands.
Suddenly I realize this, the full weight of its meaning, in my heart as well as my head—and I feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck. Because the demands and difficulties of any true purpose are inherent in the goodness of the purpose itself. Not just inherent in the purpose—but in its goodness. By its very nature, true purpose means “more”—a “more” that can only be a matter of transcendence, of spirit.
We can talk of having “a purpose”—but that only means a particular goal, and the pursuit of animalistic or shallow goals hardly qualifies as “purpose” in the larger sense. We can feed our egos or our pleasure centers, our gullets or our bank accounts, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking various satisfactions, within proper bounds. But true purpose is of another level of reality altogether, and inevitably moves beyond the mere contentment of body and ego. This is why so many folktales and myths present us with a hero’s quest, a pursuit of something precious, beset with difficulties and dangers. True purpose seeks “more-ness,” and so must be difficult, must go beyond, must demand labor, strength, and courage of us. I glance at my son, feel an ease to the pain I’ve felt about his leaving home. He and his brother are each seeking to balance their own needs and desires with a life of service. My grief at our separation is part of that purpose in their lives, and an inevitable part of the great purpose my wife and I have shared, over twenty-five years now, in raising them. It’s exactly what I heard another parent say recently—that “pain is just the other side of love.”
And I find myself thinking about Gregg Easterbrook’s wonderful book The Progess Paradox. For years I’ve suspected that we tend to lose sight of all the good American and other societies have achieved, and that we aren’t sufficiently grateful. For years I’ve wondered about the cumulative effect of media focus on bad news (sometimes justified, sometimes mere attention-grabbing or profiteering). Easterbrook is no cock-eyed optimist, and he’s forthright about unsolved problems, our need to work harder for a just society, and the shallowness and greed that sometimes drive us. But he sees, through facts and statistics but also through analysis and spiritual vision, a much larger picture, and asserts with evidence and force that things are generally improving across the board. In this book, it seems to me, we see a quintessence of purpose. All the improvements Easterbrook recounts were accomplished by people seeking good, laboring with a powerful sense of—what else?—purpose. His book embodies my definition of it: positive vision in action.
For what’s at the heart of true purpose? Lately I’ve found a certain theological phrase—I don’t know where from—echoing through my mind. It’s the abstract kind of thing academics say, yet it won’t leave me alone. To actualize the divine potential in the world…
This, it seems to me, is the essence of purpose, and of the numberless forms purpose takes. A single atom in a molecule of water (like that which trickles over those black stones behind me)—a hungry vulture riding thermals above summer mountains—a father or mother embracing a child—a singer swept up in a song—a bank officer finalizing a house loan for a family—an inventor blazing with a new idea—animal, vegetable or mineral, when we act with this kind of purpose we find ourselves right where we belong. Not struggling against the grain, but moving with the unspeakable, mysterious, and utterly beautiful flow of all things—an ultimate flowing that, to my mind, can only derive from God.
“To actualize the divine potential in the world…”—or, put differently, to bring life to the desert. This is at the heart of our potential as human beings, as spiritual animals. Our old stories and sacred texts recount this truth again and again. In the Torah, Moses strikes the rock with his staff and God sends water gushing from dead stone. Jesus says, “I am the Way and the Life,” reviving the desert of sin and meaninglessness with the water of love. When asked about the nature of ultimate reality, Buddha smiles and points to a flower—a blossoming amid existential wastes. Chief Seattle of the Suquamish is reported to have said, “…The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors…” For Hindus, the Ganges River is spiritual “Mother.” The Tao Te Ching says, “The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things…” the Koran refers to “Allah…your Guardian-Lord, Who…sent down the rain from the heavens; /And brought forth therewith/Fruits for your sustenance…” Native Americans of the Southwest believed that the hunchback Kokopelli endlessly wandered the land, germinating seeds with the playing of his flute. Over and over, sacred voices call for the bringing forth of good, for the revealing, through acts of natural or human purpose, of that which was meant to come to light.
And suddenly, here in this increasingly stuffy church, I find myself remembering words I recently learned from my uncle. In his eighties now, he’s spent his life as a priest and a writer on religious subjects. I grew up with his example before me, as well as the example of my dad, a beloved OB-GYN, and my mom, who raised eleven of us but always found time to visit shut-ins and older people in our neighborhood. My uncle, retired now, still puts out The Star, a small, photo-copied magazine, and I’d just seen Thomas Aquinas’ words in the latest issue:
“All things, by desiring their own perfection, desire
God Himself; inasmuch as the perfection of all things
are so many similitudes of the divine essence.”
What else can “desiring our own perfection” mean but a life of purpose, a life in which we seek to be our best possible, and therefore our truest, selves? This is where purpose and path become the same thing. And it doesn’t matter what the nature of one’s own path or purpose is, so long as it’s good. Librarians can live for true purpose, food-workers can, bus-drivers can, furniture sellers, ranchers, artists, politicians, anyone who gives of himself or herself, who seeks whatever contribution to the common good, on whatever scale.
And suddenly a sacred understanding comes to me, as easily as April clouds release their rain, as spring waters flow over stones: Purpose is a bridge between the imperfection of the world and the perfection of God. It not only unleashes powers within us, bringing them up into our daily lives, but also affords us a glimpse beyond, into the deeper nature of things. Joseph Campbell’s words come crowding in on me, in which he speaks of “myth” in the broadest possible sense, as one of our great spiritual faculties:
“…myth is the secret opening through which
the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour
into human cultural manifestation.”
I remind myself too that in the beautiful myths, folktales and fairy tales I’m privileged to tell, there’s always purpose, however mysterious or inscrutable—and human beings aligning themselves with or against it, and so winning or losing themselves. And because true purpose often has a fundamentally moral heft to it, I think of one of C.S. Lewis’ chapter titles: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.”
This idea of a bridge between imperfect and perfect means that purpose is something we must rise to, that it doesn’t just fall into our laps. It shouldn’t be easy to find, or too immediately discernable—because it partakes both of this world and the world beyond. It can’t have the inevitability of our animal functions, it can’t be before us always like food, or consistently powerful like physical hunger—because it’s based on another kind of hunger. Purpose as bridge also means that, in our human weakness and finitude, we sometimes lose our sense of it or find it dimmed. That’s only natural. The power of purpose is not only to set us on a path, but to renew us as we travel that path—since the path must constantly be re-chosen.
Each of us, I remind myself, has our own purpose. A single profound path utterly yours amid the billions of galaxies, no other path than your own, unique as your fingerprints, those holy marks given to you alone among all the hosts of creation—this is what every human being infallibly possesses. Take it or fail it, it’s your path, your future, your truest self—your purpose. It’s waiting for you.
And suddenly, here in this shadowy church, I hear a voice that’s not a voice asking me—Will you go on?
The service is over. Spring air pours in as the big doors are opened, sunlight comes slanting. As the congregation files out, I take a deep breath, say to myself, It’s good to be alive! And it’s good that there’s deep work to be done—my work, whatever it may ask of me. Suddenly I also find myself looking forward to the ordinary grit of it—that paragraph on my computer screen that keeps fighting me with its awkwardness—the thick stack of papers I have to grade—the student I need to have a difficult talk with. This joy in the ordinary surprises me—but not for long.
And as I approach the doors to step back out into the world, joking with my son, my arms around my wife and daughter, I pause to listen.
There it is—that trickling of water over stones.
Yeats, W.B. “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume I.
New York: Macmillan, 1989, pp. 193-194.
“The Storytellers’ Journey: An American Revival. Joseph Daniel Sobol.” University
of Illinois Press website (http://www.prtess.uillinois.edu/s99/sobol.
Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel
Worse. New York: Random House, 2003.
“Thoughts about God.” Star: A Guide for Peaceful Living. May 2004, p. 11. Ed.
Father Rawley Myers.
Campbell, Joseph. Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 1990.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980.