Mar 19, 2009
What are you gonna do with your life?
What is your magnum opus?
If such questions don’t plague you, then you are either a) fortunate to be so clearly directed, on track, and focused, b) indifferent to the very question, which is both a blessing and a curse, but mostly the latter, or c) so frustrated with trying to figure out the answer that you just gave up on the question.
It’s an existential question: Who am I? and Why am I here?
It’s a meaning question: What gives my life purpose and value?
It’s a time question: Am I giving my hours and days to something I love and believe in?
It’s a personal question: Am I living my own purpose or one someone else picked for me?
It’s a scary question: What if I’m missing “it” and wasting my one and only life?
Too put it mildly, it’s kind of a big deal. So much has been written on this subject, including the wildly popular book The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. Warren and others provide helpful frameworks and broad stroke categories by which we can look at purpose, and these can be and are quite helpful as we consider this critical topic. In fact, many people have been helped by simply being nudged, cajoled, or shoved towards at least considering the question.
But here’s the problem. Those of us who are either rule-followers (I need to do it just right, the way the manual says) or performance junkies (I need to do it as good as it can be done, or maybe better) can settle for checking off boxes and arrive at a lesser, shallower purpose for themselves. In the process, we miss something vital and life-giving. Further, those who avoid the hard and often painful work of internally wrestling with the question for themselves will instead settle for answers that miss the deepest places of the heart. Let me put it this way: I agree that there are important categories for purpose that any worthwhile expression will consider and contend with, but these are not personal enough to get us “all the way there”. Underneath them lies a uniquely shaped and painfully shy soul that must be coaxed out of hiding and into the light. We need to find, within the wide-open playground of God’s desires and intents for us all, our unique imprint.
Finding our own soul’s fingerprint, in my experience, is perhaps the most challenging task we’ll undertake. For in this journey we cannot, we must not, settle for either partial answers or, even worse, someone else’s answer. We must, in the words of Frederich Beuchner, listen to our lives. One of my very favorite quotes from him:
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy, hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.“
Another writer whose insight I have come to treasure on this vein is Parker Palmer. His little book Let Your Life Speak did more to encourage and stir my soul than many others I’d encountered. The insight named in the title of his book changed the nature and arc of my search for purpose radically. Simply put, the pathway towards finding our purpose is not found in trying to impose a purpose upon our lives that we can accomplish and achieve. Rather, the truest path is the one that aligns with the unique design imprinted upon us by our Creator. This journey becomes, then, one of discovery, not decision and will alone. To know what I am here for, what my unique calling is, I must learn to listen.
And listening- true listening- is one of the hardest things there is. I’d rather talk. Or do. Or just get going. But if, as Palmer says, our soul is more like a beautiful doe traveling the forest, I must be very still if I hope to see it up close. Be still, listen, and pay attention. And since this majestic creature lives within me, is in fact the truest and deepest me there is, then I can be confident that it will indeed emerge.
Here, then, is a new beginning. What am I here for? What am I doing with my life? What does God have for me? These critical and life-shaping questions are best wrestled down with my soul in full view. As I journey forward, I discover my unique pathway only by listening to the music that plays within my heart. What is its song? How goes the rhythm? I did not write this tune, rather the One who made me placed it deep inside my soul and the melody comes from His infinitely creative hand. But as I learn to listen, strain to hear the notes, I begin to pick out the beat and the tempo. And ever so slowly, painfully, sometimes awkwardly, I step forward and start to dance.