“The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in the hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.”
—Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
There is a weight loss commercial that plays fairly often on a local television station. A woman shares her before and after photos, tells a snippet of her story, then ends with the line, “Now I can finally be who I am created to be.” Every time I hear this line, I cringe. First, I dislike the suggestion that she could not be fulfilled until she reached a specific weight. Second, it suggests that there is a great deal of specificity to “what we are created to be”.
Here is what I have come to believe: we a not born for a singular purpose. Instead, we are called to a life of purpose, the expression of which takes many forms throughout the span of our years. In order to live lives of purpose, we must learn, also, to live on purpose.
Two years ago, I quit my job and moved to the Twin Cities to experience a new chapter in my own quest for a purposeful life. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for my livelihood, I just knew that what I had been doing for 20+ years no longer called me. In fact, I felt depleted and beat-up, as if I had survived a war-zone instead of a long career in the ivory tower of academia.
Occasionally, when driving, I make a too-severe course correction, causing my vehicle to sway dangerously out of control, whiplashing from side to side like it might tip over. Then I regain control and equilibrium and continue on my way. The past two years have seemed a lot like that – the necessary swerves of a powerful course correction. The fact that they may have been necessary does not decrease the difficulty and/or fear I felt while experiencing them.
In the quote above, Parker Palmer references several paradoxes of human experience. First, he says, “the deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure”. When I moved to Minneapolis, I was deeply convinced that that I was taking a leap of faith. I believed that, although the way forward wasn’t immediately clear, all would be revealed to me as it fell into place. It did not take long for doubt to creep in. I was so joyful when I first took that leap! I remember my father telling me, “Hold on to that feeling, because there are days coming when things will be really hard – and all you’ll have is this memory to remind you why you made the choice to leave your past life.” In my doubt, I remembered his words, but I found it nearly impossible to recapture the joy that had provoked them.
I was so hopeful, back then, as I took up my new life. But Palmer reminds us that we are likely to experience hope and despair as twin arcs. First, I would have creative ideas, meet interesting people, dream big dreams and hope for big outcomes. Then, nothing would come of these things and despair would swallow me whole. What carried me through the slough of despond was attention to detail. I would notice and allow small spots of beauty or evidence of connection with others to lead me back toward the hope that I would find a way to engage with purpose again in my life.
Finally, Palmer says “the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring.” There were people I loved and with whom I felt a deep connection. But I left them behind when I moved here. The longer it took to establish meaningful relationships in my new community, the more pain I felt at being adrift in a sea of strangers.
I share these experiences of doubt, despair and pain because they have been excellent instructors. From the deepest doubt in myself, I have learned humility. From the darkness of despair, I have learned that light has to be created and nurtured from within, then shared with an outward thrust into the world. And from the pain of loneliness and loss, I have learned that connecting with others is not only a human urge, it is a necessity for a fulfilling life.
Most important, I have learned that the majority of us will not experience a lightening bolt of inspiration which shows us, in unerring detail, our life’s purpose. Rather, if we wish to live lives of purpose, we must seek out purpose in the life circumstances in which we find ourselves. This isn’t to say we don’t have volition or the freedom to choose. It, first, means that life doesn’t happen in the logical, sequential, easy to read manner that our faith, hope and love expect. But it also means that all three – faith, hope, and love are both emotions that we feel and choices that we make. That is the “on purpose” part of the equation.
These reflections come on the eve of new course corrections in my life, which I will share in more detail in next week’s blog post. These two years there have been deeply felt learning experiences on both ends of the spectrum: faith and doubt, hope and despair, love and pain. The thread of purpose has been woven through each aspect of experience as I have wondered what purpose(s) I served, as well as how my daily choices could be made with intention. There have been times of clarity as well as times when I couldn’t see the path before me. Still, faith, hope and love are powerfully resilient in service to a life of purpose.
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
— 1 Corinthians 13:12-13