My daughter is obsessed with soccer. She thinks someday she will grow up to play it professionally. Most likely she won’t. That’s the kind of career that’s nearly impossible to come by, especially when you are genetically predisposed to an extreme lack of physical coordination. She is nine, meaning she is often melodramatic, but she tells me she will die if she doesn’t get to play soccer. I am often tempted to tell her I’ll start penning her obituary, but I usually settle for some variation of a “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” speech. I tell her, usually to no avail, that it’s important to find more than one thing she enjoys in life, and it doesn’t matter what she is good at so long as it makes her happy.
I understand my daughter’s need for something that is hers and hers alone. I know her love of soccer may stay with her forever, or it may soon be replaced by the next shiny thing that comes along and catches her eye. When I listen to her going on and on about her latest discovery, I think about how incredibly difficult a job it is to grow up. I wonder if it feels frightening and lonely to know this business of leaving childhood happens whether you want it to or not? I can’t help but think each phase she enters is really a question she’s asking herself: Is this who I am supposed to be? It can be exhausting trying to keep up with her rapidly changing passions, but what other way is there for her to figure out what she is doing in this life?
I am hesitant to accept the notion that each of us has a particular purpose in life. In theory, it makes perfect sense to me, or at least more sense than believing we are all here just aimlessly meandering about the Earth. But as much as I would like to, I’m not sure I can support the idea of individual life purposes without also buying into the idea that everything is predestined. I tend to believe in randomness. I believe in the mystery of life. If it’s true we each have a specific purpose, I’m not quite sure how to adequately determine my own because so many of my life experiences have been rooted in rejection and loss. I genuinely love my life, but I would be lying if I claimed it hasn’t been tinged with sorrow.
I know my mother ferociously loved me, but the first thing I recall feeling outside of her presence was the certainty I did not belong. As a child, these are the first things I learned about myself: My skin was too brown. My birthmark was too ugly. My name was too weird. It was as if I walked about with a flashing neon sign over my head – DIFFERENT-DIFFERENT-DIFFERENT – and for a long time different was the worst thing I thought I could be. I thought being different made me unlovable, a belief reinforced by my dad’s abandonment early in my life. His absence was my introduction to the anguish of loss and rejection, at an age when I didn’t even understand why I needed his love. My dad’s departure seemed to open the door to what has, at times, felt like an endless wave of losses, the deaths of friends and the death of my mother being among the worst. And now, again, I am faced with even more loss, as I have to accept the dissolution of my marriage.
As an adult, I am better equipped to handle these experiences and the painful emotions that come with them, but I still can’t make sense of the mystery of it all. Am I really to believe there is some meaning to all of this heartache? Is there really some purpose to having to experience loss over and over again? And what about those among us who have lived truly traumatic lives? What, exactly, is the point? Yes, there can be beautiful growth from tragedy, but more often than not I have felt my existence could be the definition for grieving misfits, and that is a difficult thing for me to accept.
I refuse to view the painful events in my life as blessings in disguise, and I wouldn’t dare try to assign a purpose to them. To do so would border on gratitude, which I most definitely do not feel. I cannot, however, deny that having to live through such heartache has taught me things about myself that I am not sure I would have learned otherwise. How could I have ever known the level of independence I am capable of if not for my mother’s early death? Would I have ever known my ability to love and forgive someone, whom many would deem unworthy, if not for having to accept my dad’s incompetence? And while I would like to think I would be courageous enough to speak out against racism, maybe I wouldn’t had I not been personally affected by it.
It is, of course, impossible to definitively know what conclusions to draw, even if sorrow and growth appear to be intertwined. I know many people, when faced with similar circumstances, are able to accept tragedy for its hidden benefits. I am not one of those people. Truthfully, I would rather have grown up feeling completely accepted by my community, instead of having to make peace with feeling out of place. I would much rather have my parents than feel I have learned important things about myself because of their absences.
The events of my life have provided me with plenty to write about. As scary as it is to say aloud, I am certain writing is my vocational purpose. I wish claiming my life’s purpose were as simple as that; a formula presents itself and I merely follow along: Tragedy + Writing = Purpose. It doesn’t feel that easy. I think there is more to purpose than what I happen to feel called to do. Besides, saying I’m here to write feels a little too grandiose for me.
As I get older, I sometimes think it may be clarity I am seeking. Maybe it’s not purpose that is important to me; maybe it’s certitude. I cannot describe how this came to be, but I have developed an almost eerie level of perception about my life decisions. It could be nothing more than the perfect combination of luck and intuition, but I rarely second guess myself over the choices I make. That’s not to say I am never taken by surprise by what transpires in my life; I sometimes feel my life is just one surprise after another. But I don’t worry much about how I am going to handle the next mystery, the next unforeseen event, and having that level of confidence and wisdom is invaluable.
I have come to appreciate this balance of the known and unknown, frightening though it can be. I don’t feel the need to know why I am here, so long as I know I can trust myself to handle whatever comes my way. I suppose, if I were forced to, I could come up with a list of things I feel I am suited for in life, but I’ve grown pretty comfortable with the mystery. I’d be thrilled to not have another loss to deal with any time soon, but I know there’s room for it, just like there’s room for tears and laughter, joy and hate, my music and my vintage Pyrex. I think when it comes down to it, my purpose isn’t really that different from anyone else’s: just live well. By that measure, I think I am doing all right.
Read more of Abra’s work.
Read more of our purpose series.