I'm sure that every parent who read Angelina Jolie's powerful essay in Tuesday's New York Times hugged their own children just a little bit closer. Almost every parent feels that deep sense of connection to their children, but they also feel something more all-encompassing - a deep sense of purpose. A parent might have the world's worst boss, but they tough it out in order to provide financially for their children. You might suffer a two-hour, one-way commute to work if the neighborhood in which you live is in a highly coveted school district that provides access to the special programming needs for your child. These are the choices that you make for a life lived with purpose.
As someone who is married and child-free, I used to think that all of my friends with children, living lives deprived of sleep/sex/money while raising your little ones, had it easy.You have a living, breathing reason to get out of bed every morning (and in the middle of the night, sometimes). You may hate your job/boss/commute, but you love your child, and so with that deep sense of purpose you suck it up and smile when that pint-sized person hugs you and calls you daddy/mommy. Purpose puts you on a flight with a five-year old so that you can visit Disney World and lunch with the princesses. Purpose makes you put on a pair of cargo shorts and become the den mother to your daughter's Brownie troop. Purpose makes you dash out of the house on Sunday mornings in order to get your 4-year old to the Sunday school class that she adores. Purpose, literally, puts you behind the wheel of an unflattering minivan so that can play chauffeur for your three kids and the grind of Saturday sports clinics/swim practices/ballet lessons/karate classes. Want to question your existence?? Try finding the time!
For the first 20 years of my life, I was consumed with getting into the right college and then getting into graduate school. My purpose, then, was about making my parents proud of me and having fun with my friends. But, what happens when you don't have any purpose? Well, it ain't pretty, I can tell you that. It's a bit like walking through a fog, a very dense fog.
The first time I felt this was when I was in seminary. I was single, in my early twenties, and I was discovering that a career in the clergy wasn't for me, while all around me were dozens of my classmates who were happily vibrating with purpose. I had some serious purpose-envy! I felt hollow and lost, and as my old college friends began to find their professional footing and started pairing off, my life felt more episodic and chaotic than ever. They were planning conferences and weddings and what was I doing? From there followed what looks like a parabola, with peaks of purposeful periods followed by steep valleys where I was left pondering the meaning of my life. When I met the man who is my husband, I don't know what I was more excited for - finding a man I loved who loved me, or having someone in my life who needed me. I had a renewed since of purpose in my life, but was it enough?
Over the past year I've grappled, again, with this question of purpose, so instead of looking at my friends who are parents, I looked, instead, to my unmarried and child free friends. For them, purpose takes many different pathways. Some have found their purpose in their job, working in fields that serve to benefit their community. A dear friend of mine who was trained as an actor chose to become a registered nurse, allowing him to heal body, mind and soul. Another friend is working to find the link between rogue proteins and the diseases they may cause in order to find cures for everything from heart disease to Alzheimer's. Other single friends of mine devote their free time to volunteering with outreach groups who assist those who need a helping hand, or serving on boards of nonprofit groups that seek to solve the crises of hunger or domestic violence or early education. And some find their purpose in taking care of their aging parents.
So where had I gone wrong in my search for purpose? I had assumed that purpose would just come to me, that there would be husband/children/family and, aha!, there would be my purpose. But to live life with purpose means that you live life ON purpose. Finding your purpose is not random, as I had thought. It is, instead, opening yourself to that deep feeling of love and joy that connects us each to one another. I do have purpose in my life. It might not look like it does in anyone else's life, but that's the thing about purpose - it is as unique as we are.