31 July 2020

Life of Purpose

At the core of every human heart is the desire to find purpose in life. It drives the direction we move into and influences the big decisions we face. The most powerful question a person can ask themself is “Why am I here?” It is a question every single person faces throughout the course of their entire life. This is not an easy question to ask, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know that anyone will ever fully answer such a question. Life is a long and complex journey that has seemingly endless twists and turns. There are simply too many factors in life to fully comprehend what singular purpose one is to fulfill. Frankly, the majority of us will never have one singular purpose, but a wide array of moments that bring us meaning and purpose.

In his memoir detailing his experience during the Holocaust, Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi says, “The conviction that life has a purpose is rooted in every fibre of man, it is a property of the human substance. Free men give many names to this purpose, and think and talk a lot about its nature. But for us the question is simpler. Today, in this place, our only purpose is to reach the spring. At the moment we care about nothing else. Behind this aim there is not at the moment any other aim. In the morning while we wait endlessly lined up in the roll-call square for the time to leave for work, while every breath of wind penetrates out clothes and runs in violent shivers over our defenseless bodies, and everything is grey around us, and we are grey; in the morning, when it is still dark, we all look at the sky in the east to spot the first signs of a milder season, and the rising of the sun is commented on every day: today a little earlier than yesterday, today a little warmer than yesterday, in two months, in a month, the cold will call a truce and we will have one enemy less.”

I was particularly drawn to his description of reaching the spring. Primo and his fellow prisoners were living in a forced labor camp, with little food or drink, in challenging conditions that we cannot even begin to imagine, and with little to no hope for the future. They were living day-to-day and could not imagine, at this point in his story, that they would one day be free of this inhumane treatment. Yet, I believe that there is something that we can all take away from his description of the purpose he and his fellow prisoners had. They were working to make it through the harsh, cruel winter and into the relief of spring. For them this literally meant the season of spring when the weather would not be so harsh on their bodies and drain them of the little energy they needed to survive. For us, I would like to think that the “spring” could be better times ahead.

We are not held captive, forced to work against our wills, or drained of any and all human dignity. Though we do not experience the kind of struggle that Primo Levi and other prominent authors have described about their time working in concentration camps, we still struggle with purpose, as though propose is a singular reason for living. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: it’s not. Purpose changes throughout our lives and takes on many different forms. Primo Levi did not grow up thinking that the meaning of life, the purpose of life, was simply to make it to spring. Prior to the Nazi’s capturing him, he had dreams and plans for the future. Those dreams changed, and changed in dramatic ways, at least for a time. For the time during his captivity, his purpose was to survive. In the years after he was set free, he lived a life of great purpose by teaching others about his experience. No, this was not always his plan, but it was the reality given to him.

When thinking of purpose, I often think about the Apostle Paul. He began his journey killing Christians only to become the most important early church leader. He took three missional journeys to share the good news that he had only recently been killing others for. He would lead a life of great purpose until his death. When he was imprisoned, he could no longer perform his ministry the way he had always done, and so he had to adapt. Once he adapted, he found renewed purpose in the letters he sent to other teachers, like Timothy, to encourage the work that they were doing.

Reflecting on inspirational leaders like Primo Levi and the Apostle Paul, I realized that to have purpose requires that you have great flexibility, too. The people who find purpose in life are the ones who are able to adapt to what life presents them. This is not to say their prior dreams and goals were not valid, but simply that the path life took them on did not create room for those goals. In the end, we need to find ways to adapt to the ever changing circumstances that we find ourselves in. It would be so easy to fall into some deep depression that things did not go our way, but this solves nothing for us. Purpose and meaning are completely in the eye of the beholder. If you are finding fulfillment in the work, life, or goals you are setting, then you will find meaning in life’s journey. Don’t let disappointment paralyze you. Allow for it to be a moment of self reflection and use that time to better yourself for the future. Every moment is a learning post in life. Allow for that inner strength that comes from the Holy Spirit to guide you to a better way of being. In that, you will find peace and purpose for all of life.