Years ago a friend told me that he was sad because he didn’t know his life’s purpose. For some reason, I had never thought about that concept before. And so, because I didn’t know how to take what he was saying seriously, I insensitively reacted with laughter. This upset him, which only made me laugh more. As I tried to apologize between laughs, he asked me what my life’s purpose was if I thought it was so funny that he didn’t have one. I let him know that I wasn’t laughing because he didn’t have a “life’s purpose”, I was laughing because up to that point, I didn’t even know that was a thing that people thought about—let alone cried about. At first he found it hard to believe that I didn’t sit around thinking about that. So he asked, “Well if you don’t think about your life’s purpose, what do you think the point of life is?”
I was honest with him and said that I didn’t really know if life had a point as he seemed to be expressing it. I basically, said that the point of life seemed to be to stay alive until you weren’t anymore. But, as a fellow Christian, he thought my outlook was disheartening. He proceeded to tell me that God had a plan for my life and that I needed to be concerned about what it was. Funny enough, but all my years in church never really gave me that impression. In the black churches that I frequented, it seemed like all we ever thought about was the life after this life and the Apocalypse. My white Christian friend thought about the End Times too. But while the earth was still around, it seemed he had the convenience to think about getting whatever God had in store for him and living his “life’s purpose”.
“Sounds made up to me,” was the extent of my response. At that moment, we were at a pizza restaurant so I told him that I decided that my life’s purpose was to eat this slice of pizza in my face. Then in an exaggerated fashion, I said, “I have lived my entire life for this one moment and now it is finally here. I will now eat the Pizza of Destiny and then my work here will be done.” He sad-laughed as one does when they realize that the person they are talking to is an asshole who makes a good point. I proceeded to take it a little too far and say things like, “Now my purpose is to drink this drink. Now my purpose is to wipe my mouth. Now my purpose is to laugh at myself for saying that everything is my purpose.” Eventually he decided to drop it and we moved on to other things.
I didn’t really think about it at the time, but now that I have had the opportunity to reflect on my life, I think that one major reason that I had never thought about my so-called life’s purpose is because for many people that kind of question is actually a luxury. While there are some people who, even under the most extreme circumstances will somehow get a sense of purpose that they aim toward, I think that a larger number of us are just trying to survive day to day. Who is thinking about their life’s purpose while they are trying to keep the lights on? At least I imagine that is where I was coming from at the age of 20, newly in the military, and with no real idea of what my future might look like; if I had one. I knew what I didn’t want. But for me, just being able to pay my bills was enough to feel like I was making it in life.
Growing Up on Purpose
After being awakened to the language of “life’s purpose” though, my reticular activating system kicked in and all of a sudden I started hearing that kind of talk everywhere. People may have been saying it prior to my conversation with my friend, but I wasn’t listening. But now it seemed like everyone was concerned about their purpose and future. And when people heard I wasn’t, many were legitimately disturbed.
Once, when I was introduced to the mother of a woman I was dating, trying to assess me as a suitable partner for her child, she asked, “So Pedro, what are your hopes and dreams?” I could tell that she was less than impressed with my answer. “Oh, I don’t have any,” I said with a straight face. She proceeded to explain to instruct me that when a man meets the mother of a woman he’s interested in, he should be concerned with impressing her. Furthermore, she let me know that I should have had the decency to lie. And my dad—bless his heart—was infected with the “Why can’t you be more like so and so?” Disease. So whenever he saw someone doing something that he thought “with my intelligence” I could be doing just as well as or better, he would be sure to let me know that I was not living up to my potential. What I would say back would pretty much add up to the whole “Now my purpose is to…” defense and the assertion that unless I asked someone to pay my bills they had no say in my purpose or potential. And the proverbial “last nail in the coffin” on that discussion was, “If God wanted me to be doing that, I’d be doing it. But since I am doing this, it must mean this is where God wants me.” I pulled that out any time someone pulled the God card when trying to convince me that God had a plan for me.
As Christian as I considered myself to be, I never liked the whole “God’s Plan” thing. I didn’t try to take it away from other people if it helped them to survive the day. But if they tried to make me swallow that pill, I would spit it out right in their face. I’m not going to get into all of the reasons I felt this way. But on the earthly level, I didn’t like the idea because starting at an early age, there were some abuses and misuses that my body endured that I’d rather not think of as being part of God’s plan. I think I said enough on that. But on an esoteric level, it hit me once to consider why would someone who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present need a plan for anything in the first place. Plans are for people who want to do something but need to figure out how to get the best information and resources in order maximize the POSSIBILITY OF SUCCESS. So why would someone with all of the resources and all of the information need a plan for me or for anyone?
Even when I was evangelizing, I never really framed it in terms of God’s plan. I came more from the perspective that, “This place is the insane asylum world where people like Jesus get killed. So don’t be surprised if they get his followers or those who live into his ideals. But hey don’t take it personally. Jesus didn’t. So forgive people and keep moving so that when you die, you will go to the sane place Jesus went and not the crappy place where people who don’t believe in Jesus’ teachings go.” I had a lot of biblical reasons for thinking like that to include Jesus’ “Don’t marvel if the world hates you, because they hated me first.” speech. But my Christian friends weren’t trying to hear all of that. Ironically, it would turn out that I made more sense to Buddhists who think life is full of suffering and think striving is pointless. But I knew next to nothing about them at that time. So as far as I knew, I was the bummer Christian who laughed at purpose, but felt reasonably fine that no one really agreed with me. And then…
It’s Not Us. It’s You.
If people thought my point of view was off and not very Christian before, when Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, started proliferating the western Christian world, my deal was sealed. At the time, I didn’t know any Christians who hadn’t read it, were reading it, had it on their reading list, or were having parts of it quoted it to them. The title alone, gave many the sense, “This is how you should live your life.” And finally after years of standing my ground, I gave in and joined a study group on the book, in my attempt to get back in the church and figure out how to fit in somewhere.
The short version of this story is that I didn’t make it through the book. But it did leave me with a sense that I was wrong. Now purpose was important and I needed to figure out what mine was fast. And just like that, I was the both my sad friend in the pizza restaurant and the guy who laughed at him. And for the most part I have been vacillating between the two of them ever since.
Once I got the purpose bug, I was never really satisfied with the simplicity of life anymore. I didn’t become a person who went about the relentless pursuit of acquiring things and other status symbols as a sign of being in God’s favor or anything like that. But, I did become someone who at times feels the guilt of thinking I should be that type of person. And when I do, it is depressing. To use one of my favorite metaphors—language—it would be like learning a language and then realizing that the people who were speaking that language around you while smiling in your face were also talking about what a loser you are the whole time. Once I really heard the language, I couldn’t un-hear it. And so while in my heart I wanted to unattached-ly live in the mystery of life’s unfolding as long as I was subjected to the conditions of this world, I couldn’t help but understand when people said I should be living otherwise.
The Planless Plan
Somewhere on my journey, I tried to find this middle place that I am calling the Planless Plan. Basically this is when I get an idea in my head of something that I can see myself adding to my experience. I connect with the “addition” in my heart and then without attachment, I just start doing stuff without ever really having any sense of certainty about how it is leading me to the addition, while at the same time trusting that God, who needs no plan, is using what I do and don’t do, who I am with and who I’m away from, and what I feel and don’t feel, etc., to help me receive the addition that already is Present in God’s Reality of the Eternal Now. If that doesn’t make sense to you, see my last blog post, When Time Touches Eternity. But ultimately, what I just said was a long way of saying I try to walk by faith and not by sight.
The Planless Plan is simply the work I put in to surrender any illusion that I am going to figure this whole human purpose thing out while at the same time, honoring that I experience the Presence of a Revelatory Creator who will make a way–most often a completely circuitous and distractingly confusing one–to guide me from one state of being to another. And perhaps, purpose is just one tool in the Creator’s tool box, if you will. Whether God has or needs a plan or not is beyond me. But I do suspect that if we need a plan or believe we need God to have one, in order to keep going in some direction, we’ll conceive of one whether it is from God or not. And then God will work with us to the degree that we can or are willing to surrender the plan when it is no longer useful. Ultimately though, I sense that at the end of all purpose and planning, God will reveal that our plans and purpose making were like a map to nowhere we ever needed to go where we’ll find monuments to nothing more fulfilling than what already is in the all knowing mind of God. And if that statement doesn’t connect with you, just read the poem below.
It started in the beginning
It ended in the beginning
The Peace and the war
The losing and the Winning
The time we have to wait
The weight that comes with time
The Word and the verse
The pentameter and the rhyme
The Hope for a better tomorrow
than the way things are today
The separation from God
and the recollection when we Pray
The anger and the rage
that makes me hate my fellow man
and the Forgiveness of all error
that makes me want to hold their hand
The slavery that freed me
and the freedom that was my prison
The light that was so blinding
that it made clear my true Vision
The death I had to suffer
to see that I was Alive
The Love that is more Perfect
than all that man’s contrived
All that I will overcome
that led me to come over
to the Answer that’s so close
that it can’t get any closer
The doubt that made me Trust
that there’s Nothing I should doubt
and the Silence that’s so deafening
it drowned at all my shouts
My enemies who hate me
that I may know the Love of my friends
and the Salvation I received
because I committed all those sins
So when it comes to God’s Plan
there’s only One thing we need to know
This world was already Perfect
before our struggle to make it so
Purpose is What You Make It
In the final analysis, I think if there is any point to purpose as people seem to be defining it, it has very little to do with what one seems to achieve and more to do with who one discovers themselves to be on the journey. Whether the purpose comes from God or from one’s own imagination, I would suppose that the whole idea of it emerges from a sense that we are all capable of positive transformation. That we are in a process of becoming and that that impulse compels us to wonder about the untapped potential resident in our beings. As for me, because I don’t experience purpose as it’s been marketed, I am transforming it to match who I’m discovering myself to be. And for me, that means purpose is a moment by moment revelation that draws me into deeper relationship with my Creator and the world that was created perfectly before we convinced ourselves we could improve upon its expression.