When we’re young, everybody asks us: “What do you want to be when you grow older?” Once we’ve grown up and become older, who asks us what we want to be anymore? Nobody! People think of us, (perhaps it’s because we think of ourselves), as finished products. Somewhere along the line, we’ve chosen to narrow our prospects: we’ve decided that we are who we have become. But is it doing ourselves justice to consider our ‘selves’ to be over and done with — nothing more than predictable faits accomplis?
A more creative and dynamic perspective is to imagine ourselves — no matter what our age or life situation — as a ‘work in progress.’ Martin Luther saw things this way: “This life” he wrote, “is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” — Martin Luther, “Defense of All the Articles,” (1521), Weimar Ed., VII, 308 ff.; Erl. Ed2., XXIV, 56; St. Louis Ed., XV, 1476 ff. Translated by O. Clemen, LutherWerke in Auswahl, II, 70 ff.; in English, Luther’s Works, Volume 32: Career of the Reformer II, George W. Forell and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1958).
What a difference it would make if we all asked ourselves regularly and tried to answer faithfully that provocative question that the poet raises: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”— Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems, (Boston, MA, Beacon Press, 1992).
I’m preparing to lead a seminar at some point in the future on the topic, “What’s your purpose now?” I’ll be publishing a series of essays — discussion starters, really — on this site hoping they’ll help us discern the answer to that vital question, ‘What’s the purpose of my life?’ The essays will be organized around seven admonitions, urgent suggestions designed to help us discern our purpose and calling at this point in our lives. Here are the seven steps that I suggest we take:
1.) Look to your relationship with God, (however uncertain you might be about this), as the basis for discovering your true self; (Be assured that this may not be as unlikely a task as you might think!);
2.) Find the courage to unmask your illusions and reject your ‘false self,’ all those self-constructed, inauthentic poses that you’ve developed to face the world;
3.) Claim your status as God’s beloved and then embrace your passions and talents as God’s distinctive gifts for your life;
4.) Decide on what’s most important in your life; attend to and be loyal to those people and things above all else; conversely, reject those distracting preoccupations that batter your soul and claim too much of your time and energy;
5.) Discern your unique calling. When you’ve discovered it, expect to be surprised and to struggle with it before you accept it. When you do embrace it, you will find it to be the most natural thing in the world for you and a source of great joy;
6.) Remember, your purpose is never simply about you alone; you’ve been given your distinctive gifts so you can be a gift to your world. Consider the impact you are called to have as you live for others;
7.) Live your life on purpose, with joy!
In Seminar Essay #2, ‘Finding your Purpose Now,’ we consider the benefits and blessings that leading a purpose-driven life offers us all. In Seminar Essay #3, ‘Finding God,’ we wrestle with the most challenging proposition of the seven, that the way to discover our true identity, our unique purpose and our specific calling is to explore, deepen and learn from our relationship with God.
I believe that each of us has a relationship with the holy, the transcendent in life. Not everyone will choose to call this dynamic presence God, but, for simplicity’s sake, that is the word we will use in this seminar, a term that will be familiar to and helpful to most participants. That said, I very much welcome people who do not see themselves as ‘traditional believers’ to this dialogue.
I welcome also those who, after much searching, still find God to be a remote, non-responsive and elusive factor in their lives. Don’t count yourself out of this conversation, whatever your uncertainties might be about the divine-human relationship. There is wisdom here for all, whether you’re a believer, a skeptic or an agnostic.
So, when we use the term ‘God,’ please feel free simply to substitute your sense of the sacred in its place. All that’s required is that you see yourself as part of something greater than yourself. With that perspective comes the possibility that you can imagine that you have a unique role to play and a distinctive contribution to make while you are alive in this world. Even more, you might be able to affirm that you are an integral and accepted part of that greater reality, of God.
The essay affirms that intimacy with the sacred is rarely found by trying to experience God through transporting heavenly encounters. Instead, the best way to nurture a relationship with the holy is to look to the most ordinary occurrences of our lives. Through these very simple and natural encounters we discover ourselves to be more than we ever thought we could be. In the accessible beauty of the ordinary we find that God finds us and, affirmed in that simple relationship, we can discover our true identity and embrace our real selves. In the words of the poet Raymond Carver: “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?/I did./And what did you want?/To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth.”— “Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver from A New Path to the Waterfall, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.
Claiming our true selves also means finding the courage to confront and reject any number of phony poses and postures — false selves — that we construct to get us through life. This is the focus of Seminar Essay #4, ‘Finding Yourself.’ For many complicated reasons — to please or to impress or to compete with others, perhaps — we develop a loyalty to an illusion. It’s only when we throw off these masks and stop trying to con the world with our bogus projections that we find the freedom to become who it is that we were always meant to be.
In Seminar Essay #5, ‘Deciding What’s Most Important,’ we see the shape that a purpose-driven life can take: organizing our energies and commitments around people and projects that truly deserve to be our priorities. The other side of developing loyalties to what is truly essential in life involves letting go of the many time-consuming, brain-fogging and heart-crushing distractions that fill so much of our days and keep us from true fulfillment and joy.
When we’re in touch with our true selves, when we know what’s most important in life and we accept ourselves as valued and valuable participants in this world, we begin to discern a particular calling for our lives. This is the focus of Seminar Essay #6, ‘Finding Your Calling.’ Identifying our calling in life is a matter of discovering our real selves, of developing a loyalty to that core identity, and of choosing to live as who we truly are all of our days. Our calling is simply to become who we really are!
Discovering our true purpose includes seeing our passions and talents as ‘found treasure,’ gifts given to us so that we might play our distinctive part in this world. What we also discover is that those gifts are not given to us simply for ourselves: they are gifts meant to be shared. We are called to have an impact on life, to share our talents and live as a person for others. This theme is explored in Seminar Essay #7, ‘Living A Life for Others.’
There is a real joy in pursuing such a committed, purposeful life. This is the theme of Seminar Essay #8, ‘Living on Purpose with Joy.’ Claiming the joy in embracing your true identity and unique purpose is all about knowing you’re ‘in the place where you ought to be’ and you’ve come ’round right’ as the Shaker hymn puts it. It’s the joy of the Prodigal Son, (Luke 15:11-23), who finally awoke from his life’s illusions and “came to himself,” his true self. Renewed and re-committed, he returned home to a place where at last he found joy. So too, our calling is to get in touch with who we were always meant to be and to savor the joy in our homecoming!
Edward R. Dufresne © 2018