Our first entry in our special series on Finding Your Purpose.
Like the great Irish philosopher and wearer of oversize sunglasses Bono, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Unlike Bono, I don’t have worldwide fame and fantastic wealth to compensate for my lack of purpose. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Bono’s longtime involvement in causes like fighting poverty, hunger, and AIDS constitutes a purpose, despite his grandly emotional lyrics.
Turns out Bono and I have nothing in common.
I’m almost middle-aged (assuming I’m going to live to be at least 100), and I don’t feel I’ve found my raison d’etre. Don’t get me wrong, I have a good life; I’m recently free of an unsuccessful marriage, I have a good job, an amazing daughter, a best friend/significant other who is showing me how amazing love can be, and an increasingly rewarding sideline as a writer and editor. Day to day, I’m pretty happy to be here.
But does any of that mean I’ve found my purpose?
I could probably answer that question more effectively if I understood what “having a purpose” actually meant.
Life is like a party invitation from a passing acquaintance who lives in a much fancier part of town than you do: You’re glad to have it, you think you’re going to enjoy it, but you’re a little freaked out because you don’t exactly why you were invited. Finding out the why seems like a very big deal, and the only way to do it is to wade in and ask a lot of questions.
So here goes: Is my purpose in life the everyday things I do that define me, like being a mom or serving the clients at my job? Is it the things I do that simply enrich my own life, like writing or sewing? Or is a purpose not an activity at all, but a principle or a desire to identify things that are wrong and make them right?
Let me be clear: I do not know the answer.
I’ve been searching a long time for some defining trait, or vocation, or desire that describes the essence of my existence. Here are some of the things I’ve tried to be or do to define myself and my purpose. Keep in mind, I’ve shed all these skins, having rejected them as not representing my true purpose. But that doesn’t mean I don’t keep trying on new ones, still hoping to find the pelt that best defines me and why I’m here.
Bob Dylan wannabe. I discovered Dylan when I was 13. His music changed my life, to the point that I wanted to be him. Seriously. For a few years in my teens, I wore little besides short-sleeve, button–down shirts and jeans, going for the Chuck-trying-to-be-Zimmerman-trying-to-be-Guthrie look. I kept my hair short and my aesthetic plain. Probably, to a world inundated with the onset of the 80s and the sensory assault of New Wave and MTV, I looked like an ugly butch misfit. Not an inaccurate assessment, but ultimately not who I was meant to be. I still love Dylan, but I wasn’t meant to be an angry troubadour.
Mono girl. I transferred from an all-women’s university to a local state school after my sophomore year, for all kinds of valid and completely not 19-and-drama reasons. I pretty quickly found myself in a brief, tortuous, and doomed relationship with an “artsy” guy. Ugh. Shortly after we broke up, I came down with mono. That should be a great story, and to this day I still tell it as if it were. But the truth is, I know girls who suffered from mono for months, who were completely debilitated, whose lives were legit sidetracked and re-routed by the illness. I, on the other hand, was pretty sick for a few weeks, was in recovery mode for a few weeks after that, and had left the whole mess behind me before the semester was over. I had to drop a single class (that I didn’t like anyway), which in no way impeded my academic progress. I returned to being the picture of health, completely unaltered by the experience. My little brush with “the kissing disease” was in no way a defining moment in my life.
Hippie chic. In the early 90s, I stopped dyeing and perming my hair and wore flowy, flowery clothes. I had crystals and geodes and listened to a lot of singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars. I think I wanted to emulate some combination of pre-heroin Janis Joplin and pre-Paul Simon Edie Brickell. I still admire that free-spirited take on life, but back then, in my mid-20s, I also aspired to grow my career and elevate my new husband and myself from our one-bedroom-condo rental existence. It wasn’t a good fit, and I (somewhat regretfully) left behind the dream of following the Renaissance Faire around the country.
Bulimia Chic. My 20s were stressful. I was married, childless, struggling financially. I felt like a complete nobody. How could I set myself apart while still trying to maintain a socially acceptable weight? Why, by convincing myself I was bulimic, of course. Seriously. I took laxatives to make myself poop excessively and half-heartedly tried to force myself to vomit (I was really bad at it, to be honest). In the final analysis I think I did feel a need to exert control over my circumstances, a common cause of eating disorders, but I was trying to define myself by faking a very real and serious physical/psychological illness. Eventually I appreciated how fortunate I was to only be faking it, and I moved on.
Vintage girl. After my Precocious Daughter was born, a series of unfortunate events befell my family. There were health issues and employment issues and family death issues that all happened in a short period of time. What should have been a joyous time being a new mom instead became a major test of my ability to react to adversity like a grown-ass adult. I needed something in my life to occupy my time and attention that wasn’t an invalid spouse or conflicts with my employer. I found it in collecting vintage clothes. I didn’t simply collect them; for a couple of years I wore almost exclusively threads from the 60s and 70s that I’d found on eBay and elsewhere. And I still love vintage and would love to lose enough weight to fit into those outfits again. In fact, of all the items on this list, I’d say that this one most completely fulfilled me, except that a) I don’t think dressing in old clothes counts as a purpose and b) dressing in old clothes totally doesn’t count as a purpose, dumbass.
The one item I’ve left off this list is writing. Writing is the only thing I feel I’m truly good at. It’s the thing I’ve loved the longest (I wrote my first “book” in the third grade). It makes me feel better than anything else I do (besides being a mom, which is a state of being rather than an activity and also is not something I can stop doing when it’s difficult or painful). But is writing my purpose?
Maybe the better question is: Is my purpose to write? Am I meant to create words that will change the world or move people? If all I ever do is make people laugh or think, does that count as meaningful? What if my writing never does anything but make me a happier, better person who tries to pay it forward?
Still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Does anyone have Bono’s phone number?
Read more of Chuck’s work.
Read more of our purpose series.