NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Purpose” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
More than things, more than work, more, even, than love, having a sense of purpose can not only help us withstand the turbulence in our lives, it can also guide us through fortune’s sometimes outrageous slings and arrows.
The necessity of purpose underlies every hero story ever created. A recent, and poignant, example of this is the movie Hugo, by Martin Scorcese, in which each character in the film ultimately finds his or her purpose. “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine,” young Hugo Cabret says. “Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”
Sometimes purpose seems inborn. My youngest brother, Paul, had a sense of purpose when he was 5. My mother had left him at a petting zoo at the local mall and when she came back, all the animals were gathered around him like St. Francis of Assisi. From that time on, he knew he wanted to be an “animal doctor.” His sense of his purpose drove him to finish first in his class at Cornell University’s vet school and later to become a successful and sought-after small animal surgeon.
For others, a sense of purpose evolves and refines itself over time. Or it can be revealed suddenly and lucidly at any point. In my own case, purpose has shifted at each stage of my life.
When I was 8, my purpose was to help the United States beat the Russians in the newly declared Space Race, an impetus that carried me all the way to Cornell University’s engineering school ten years later, where the immediacy of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll – and more importantly, the War in Vietnam – displaced it.
At 22, I left the University at Buffalo, where I had transferred three years earlier, with a degree in English Literature. I had planned to move to Canada to sidestep the draft, but shortly before graduation, the draft ended. I was free but also aimless. I moved back to Ithaca, where I rejoined my old Cornell friends in a farmhouse they were renting outside town. I looked in vain for steady work. At one point, I helped set up a circus and considered joining them when they left town, but they wouldn’t permit me to take my motorcycle, and I was unwilling to part with it.
As the well of my small savings was running dry, on a visit home I ran into an acquaintance from the University at Buffalo. He had been a social work professor the last time I’d seen him, but in the interim he’d quit academia to become a maker of wooden toys. He showed me around his basement workshop and told me about another UB professor who had bought a small farm on which he planned to build prototypes of alternative houses. I’d put myself through college as a carpenter and studied environmental design. Alternative methods to build houses caught my interest.
I stopped to talk with the UB professor on my ride back to Ithaca. A week later I moved to the remote town of Warsaw, New York, where I lived with the professor, his wife, and a young family. Alternative housing again gave me a sense of purpose. I would help the homeless and the poor, adapting the ways people in other cultures sheltered themselves, my Bible The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Meanwhile, in exchange for room and board I began renovations of the farmhouse itself. Months passed. Eventually, I understood that the professor’s alternative housing project was a fantasy and that what he really wanted me for was cheap labor.
The toy maker came to visit one day while I was in the throes of dismay and indecision, purposeless once again. The social worker in him rose to the occasion. “I think you’re drifting, David,” he said, “and that’s okay.”
Drifting (which I would later call “seeking”) propelled me on a long motorcycle trip through the Northeast that terminated in Manhattan. I arrived there with no clear idea what I would do or how to support myself. Chaos reigned in New York. Services such as trash collection and “luxuries” such as libraries were gradually shutting down, and the unemployment rate was rising to heights not seen since the Great Depression. The fifth-floor walkup I shared with four others was infested with cockroaches. Stray cats yowled all night outside my bedroom window. The city was in crisis, and so was I.
After fruitless weeks combing the Help Wanted section of the New York Times, it occurred to me that I couldn’t find a job if I didn’t know what I was looking for. One night I stayed up nearly to dawn writing in a frenzy about my talents, experience, goals, and aspirations. I had an epiphany: Writing, itself, was something I could do for the rest of my life without ever coming to the end of it.
Again, I had identified a purpose. During the next few years I developed a mix of memoir and journalism I called “slow journalism,” modeled on books such Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans. My hope was to give voice to the outcasts of the city I had landed in, much as Agee and Evans had done for Southern sharecropper families a generation earlier.
This sense of purpose held strong for a long time, carrying me first to artist colonies in New York and Virginia, then to the creative writing program at Boston University, and eventually to a Ph.D. program in English at the University at Albany, where purpose took another turn when a medical error nearly killed me.
During my long convalescence, what emerged was the desire to make what I still think of as my “extra” years meaningful, so that when death finally did catch up with me, I would not regret what was left undone. Twenty years later, I’m still riding that train, but lately I can see another turn coming ‘round the bend.
Finding a purpose gives us a mission, a reason for putting one foot in front of the other and for making the effort to overcome internal and external forces that threaten to drag us down. Purpose has led many of my clients out of terrifying struggles: A heroin addict and former sports hero whose life was dominated by wanting to “make a mark on the world” discovers his affinity for working with mentally retarded adults. Another becomes a counselor herself, paying forward what she learned in recovery. A severely depressed client is freed from a cycle of repeated suicide attempts by finding purpose in helping abused women. Many others with similar arcs to their stories, the arc of the Hero’s Journey, create lives with purpose.
For some, purpose is linked to career, but purpose can be found in many other places: families, communities, spiritual pursuits, creative activities, to name a few. Purpose can be as simple as deciding to act with kindness and generosity wherever you go. The thing is to find it, embrace it, and then to carry it out.
Ultimately, purpose is an internal affair. Its external manifestations can appear very different over the course of a lifetime, but they often have a common core. Like any living thing, human beings are oriented toward self-actualization, and what we are outwardly showing at any given stage may be no more indicative of our final form than a caterpillar’s form presages the butterfly it will become.
Now, with the number of years in front of me far fewer than those behind, I sense an inward turning, an integration of all these apparently separate purposes into one, and a drive to become, before I die, what is the birthright of us all: a fully realized part of the Big Machine that is everything.