Finding Purpose in Life
I don’t expect to be presented with the deepest questions of life by a newspaper columnist. Yet this is what David Brooks of the New York Times has done so adeptly. Over the last few weeks, he has published a couple columns that are worthy of not only poignant reflection but also personal response.
On April 11, “The Moral Bucket List” blew my socks off. He started off expressing appreciation for people with a generosity of spirit and depth of character that many who enjoy career success, like himself, never achieve.
He then distinguishes between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral--whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”
Brooks then acknowledges that although we are aware which are more important, our culture lulls and seduces to pursue the more pragmatic and often crass ones. And so he has sought to discover “how deeply good people got that way.” He concludes they are made, not born. That there is a “moral bucket list” of experiences that he seeks to deepen his own life.
He articulates this so well, I've got to share a little bit about each of them. Though I hope this will be enough of a teaser that you will reach through his elaborations on each!
The Humility Shift - “[A]ll the people I’ve deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. ...”
Self Defeat - “[C]haracter is built during the confrontation with your own weakness. ...”
The Dependency Leap - “[P]eople on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. ... People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are. ...”
Energizing Love - The kind of love that “decenters the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another.” Brooks uses the example of Dorothy Day discovering this kind of love after the birth of her baby, before which she was so miserable and directionless that she had attempted suicide. But with this like of love, she made unshakable commitments in all directions.
The Call Within the Call - “[S]ome people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.”
The Conscience Leap - “In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols ... They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.
I agree with Brooks that people “on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? ... Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption.” Moments of pain and suffering will lead us, if we are open, to radical self-understanding. “The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.
A fabulous description of so many of us who seek to love with courage!
Then on May 5, Brooks published the Op-Ed column “What is Your purpose?” where he begins: “Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?”
At the end of the column he invites readers to respond to him about the following: “Do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise? If so, how did you find it? Was there a person, experience or book or sermon that decisively helped you get there?
I had to respond. This is what I sent him:
The purpose of my life is to bring forth the vision of the Beloved Community as Martin Luther King expressed it--to foster justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. I believe we are here to learn how to love and love courageously. I strive to embody this conviction and invite/inspire others to do the same.
Twenty-two years ago, I was 24, longing to discern my life’s calling. I was on my way to medical school to become a child psychologist when I had the epiphany: “I don’t have to go to medical school.” After I got up the guts to shout this out loud, a knowing suddenly descended that I would pursue the Unitarian Universalist ministry and seek to bring forth prayerful commitments to healing both lives as individuals and the wider community in which I live.
I had been attending the First Unitarian Church of Oakland where the minister had grown up Jewish in Hyde Park, Chicago. I was hooked by his vision of racial reconciliation and promoting compassion, equity, and justice in human relations. His capacity to pray openly opened up a sense of great possibility. His stories, convictions, and clarity coupled with his honest reflections on the challenges of acting on these convictions was not only thrilling but inviting of ordinary little me to travel this journey.
My call to the ministry has never faded, though I regularly question whether I am capable of rising to the challenges at hand.
I speak, teach, blog, and preach on where my own faith is challenged and where I struggle. I strive to create spaces for deep listening, honest sharing, and transformational ways of working with one another. I do all this for the sake of bringing forth the beloved community that fosters justice, equity and compassion in all human relations.
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