New York Times columnist David Brooks recently published a piece entitled “The Small, Happy Life.” The article is part of a longer series Brooks is writing about what people define as their life purpose and how they found it. Reprinting some responses, Brooks shows that people are more tuned into what one individual called “small font purpose” than a version of jumbotron purpose—being the one anointed to create the next social media network or solve the clean energy crisis– that has so much currency in our world today. Instead, people are aligning their sense of purpose with recognizing the power, grace, and significance of ordinary gifts that give our lives extraordinary meaning.
Now that’s interesting.
Every three or four months (or three or four weeks if I’ve really let my issues run the funny farm) I grind my teeth over this exact issue: What is my purpose? What the hell is this all about? Why am I doing what I’m doing, or more typically, am I doing what I should be doing, am I really? And if I am, why doesn’t it feel like unicorns and butterflies and riding around in a rainbow-powered car? When I think about or read about people who have answered their “calling,” who have realized their “purpose,” who have unlocked the knowledge of “what is any of this about or for,” they seem very shiny. My friend, Christina, calls this kind of person a “cloud floater” because on the surface at least they seem like they not only have shit figured out but they have transcended to some higher level of being unavailable to us simple mortals down here, tripping over our untied shoes just trying not to screw up things too badly..
I am not floating on a cloud, high on my purpose. I am waist deep in quick sand because another day has gone by and I’m not sitting down with Oprah to talk about my book soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture; because I haven’t made the world better for orphans or the elderly or the endangered black rhinos; because I don’t feel called to churn out little DNA samples who might one day colonize Mars; because many days it seems like plugging in and showing up in all areas of my life feels like a win and am I supposed to be satisfied with that? Am I supposed to believe that’s enough after watching TED Talks given by 8-year-old social activists and reading about the woman who gave away all her earthly possessions in order to kayak around the world for charity?
Apparently kinda, but this is not the product we’ve been sold. This is “go big or go home” America, which pretty much says it all right there.
My most recent “what am I doing here” spiral of existential angst came on predictably the same way April comes after March. Some people go to the woods to pray and look for signs, I go to the temple of my religion: bookstores. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, maybe just some fiction to crawl into for a while. I walked around a display table with one of those MUST READS sign, which is the bookstore’s way of judging and shaming you simultaneously. Effective and not unlike most Western religions. One of the books was the 25th anniversary reissue of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.
Over the course of the years I have probably picked up and put down this book a dozen or more times. I’ve perused the description and thought, “Ok, I get it, inspirational journey type thing, yeah, yeah.” This time I picked it up and the only sentence that walked across my brain was, “I think you need this.”
After leaving the bookstore, I found a place to park my sorry ass and journaled for a little while. Satisfied that I was still a mess, although now there was a paper trail of proof, I fished the book out of my tote bag and began reading Coelho’s operating instructions for life folded into the story of Santiago, a shepherd who sets off in search of his Personal Legend, or, you know, his purpose, his thing.
According to Coelho and who knows how many other people who have already cracked this code, your purpose can be anything, truly, truly anything. You have my attention Mr. Coelho, continue. It can be running that clinic in Nepal; it can be becoming a lawyer; it can also be being the most kickass sister on the planet or being that go-to person that is always there to listen, not matter what. It’s a fundamental desire sparked in your soul that never really goes out no matter how you grow and change or where life leads you.
Your job, as Coelho and Brooks’ suggest, is to wake up and smell the purpose, sort to speak. That means not getting sucked into the pretty images, sexy stories, or lovely videos of other people living big, Technicolor lives of “extreme purpose” or “purpose in 48-point font.” Maybe that is your thing and that’s great, kudos, you get a ribbon, you’ve figured it out! But maybe it’s not and that’s great; that knowledge is your sacred fuel. Tune out the messages that don’t serve you and tune into where you find those subtle currents of electricity that light you up from the inside out.
I’ve been writing myself into other people’s stories for a long, long time, and I am bringing this truth from the mountaintop: not advisable, not recommended, TURN BACK! THE BRIDGE IS WASHED OUT, capiche?
I’m done hand-wringing over what my life doesn’t look like and I’m listening hard to hear what my heart tells me I need to do to rock the crap out of the life I have, the life that is already very much alive with my purpose.