Life on Purpose

The mundane details of everyday life become priceless lessons in gentleness, humility, and imagination if we take the time to step back and recognize what is truly sacred.

February 6, 2014    BY Barbara Brown Taylor

Earlier in my life, I thought there was one particular thing I was supposed to do with my life. I thought that God had a purpose for me and my main job was to discover what it was. This thought heated up while I was in seminary, where I attended classes and drank beer with other students who knew exactly what they would do when they graduated. Upon request, most of them could deliver articulate accounts of their calls to ministry. They took courses designed to prepare them to preach, teach, and deliver pastoral care. They had long lists of people willing to write recommendations for them when it came time for them to apply for their first jobs in parish ministry.

All I had was a love of what I was learning and the people I was learning it with. I loved the way the maple outside the dining hall turned fire engine red in the fall. I loved learning biblical Hebrew. I loved a young man from Camden, New Jersey. I loved the professor who got so excited about what he was teaching that he fell straight backward in his chair. I loved going to daily chapel and sipping coffee afterward in a common room furnished with fragrant old leather sofas and oil portraits of the school’s luminaries. I loved looking around the crowded common room wondering who would be the next luminaries, still so well disguised as students like me.

I did not have a single clue what I would do when I graduated. I did not even belong to a church. So I began asking God to tell me what I was supposed to do. What was my designated purpose on this earth? How could I discover the vocation that had my name on it? Since this was an important prayer, I searched for the right place to pray it. After a few lackluster attempts by the side of my bed and a few more in various cubbyholes around campus, I found a fire escape that hung precariously from the side of a deserted Victorian mansion next door to the Divinity School. That same night I crept over there after dark. Stepping over the “Danger: Keep Off” sign at the bottom, I climbed to the top, listening to the bolts creak as I tried to minimize the thundering of my feet on the narrow iron steps. I was so reluctant to take my hands off the rails that layers of old paint crackled under my palms like cornflakes. At the top I had to take a deep breath before I could let go of my handholds long enough to turn around. I did it as fast as a trapeze artist, gripping the rails again as soon as I sat down.

The fire escape turned out to be an excellent place to pray. Doing something that scared me cranked up my courage. Escaping up instead of down prepared me for other reversals. There was not a chance anyone could sneak up on me. The wind smelled like the moon. I went up there so many times in the weeks that followed that I no longer remember which night it was that God finally answered my prayer. I do not think it was right at the beginning, when I was still saying my prayers in words. I think it came later, when I had graduated to inchoate sounds. Up on that fire escape, I learned to pray the way a wolf howls. I learned to pray the way that Ella Fitzgerald sang scat.

Then one night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, “Anything that pleases you.”

“What?” I said, resorting to words again. “What kind of an answer is that?”

“Do anything that pleases you,” the voice in my head said again, “and belong to me.”

“Do anything that pleases you,” the voice in my head said again, “and belong to me.”

At one level, that answer was no help at all. The ball was back in my court again, where God had left me all kinds of room to lob it wherever I wanted. I could be a priest or a circus worker. God really did not care. At another level, I was so relieved that I sledded down the stairs that night. Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered. God had suggested an overall purpose, but was not going to supply the particulars for me. If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.

Later, I would find the work of Martin Luther helpful in this regard. A monk who became convinced that no livelihood was dearer to the heart of God than any other, he left the monastery to proclaim the priesthood of all believers. Whatever our jobs in the world happen to be, Luther said, our mutual vocation is to love God and neighbor. “None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling to tell you this incessantly,” he wrote, in Luther on Vocation by Gustaf Wingren, “if you are but willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools, and other implements in your house and estate, and they shout this to your face: ‘My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.’”

With Luther’s encouragement, I went on to use martini glasses on serving trays, saddles on spotted ponies, communion bread and wine, newspaper stories, bouquets of flowers delivered to nursing homes, suppers cooked for friends, checks from my checkbook, and green ink on student essays as purposeful means of engaging my vocation. Every one of these tools gave me ample opportunity to choose kindness over meanness. Every one of them offered me the chance to recognize the divine in human form, inviting me out of myself long enough to engage someone whose fears, wants, loves, and needs were at least as important as my own. Of course, they also gave me ample opportunity to act like a jerk, missing my purpose by a mile. Yet even this turned out to be helpful, since recognizing my jerkdom is how I remember that is not who I want to be.

A Sense of Purpose

In most ways that count, I have been lucky in my work life. I have not lived on food stamps for more than a year. I have never had to declare bankruptcy. Even when I was so poor that I was stealing rolls of toilet paper from the place where I worked, I had an education to convince me that I was not as negligible as I sometimes felt. Whether I was typing someone else’s letters at 60 words per minute or attending yet another meeting of the church finance committee, I kept the sense of purpose I discovered on that fire escape tucked in my pocket like the key to a safe deposit box.

I am no expert, but it seems to me that what many people are missing is a sense of purpose in their work. Some think it is money they are missing, or recognition, or congenial coworkers—and some of them are right. I know people who work so hard for so little that going to work simply reinforces their sense of not being worth much. Sometimes it takes two such jobs to feed a family of four, so that feeding the children means never seeing them. The work can also be deadly dull, the benefits nonexistent, and the boss a tyrant. If the work requires physical strength that cannot last forever, then the losses of age are multiplied by the loss of employment, with a disability check becoming one’s best hope for the future.

Everyone deserves a decent job at a living wage with health care benefits for dependents. Yet even people who are well paid for their work can dread getting up in the morning. Several years ago, according to Matthew Fox in The Reinvention of Work, the physician Larry Dorsey observed that more heart attacks occur between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. on Monday mornings than at any other time during the week. To discover all the reasons for this phenomenon, you would have to interview every one of those heart attack patients individually, at least the ones who survived. You would also have to become a very good student of history, sociology, psychology, and economics, since work is a social reality as well as an individual one.

What interests me is the way that a person’s work does or does not sustain that person’s sense of purpose. My guess is that many people work at jobs that are too small for them. While the world deeply needs people who will punch cash registers, enter data, empty bedpans, and take household garbage to the dump, these purposes are too small for most human beings. People know when their gifts are being wasted, and this knowledge can eat away at the soul like a cancer. Call me a romantic, but I think most people want to be good for something. I think they want to do something that matters, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to give themselves to something that is meaningful instead of meaningless.

And yet meaningful work is hard to come by. Not everyone can teach school or cure illness. Plenty of us do not get the kind of work we want, and plenty more can find it difficult to stay focused on the meaning of what we are doing. A parent who spends his or her day changing diapers and scraping applesauce off a toddler’s chin can have a hard time remembering that this unpaid work serves the purpose of forming a human being. A laborer for the department of transportation who spends hours pushing hot asphalt into potholes can have a hard time remembering that this work serves the purpose of keeping cars out of ditches on rainy nights.

While the world deeply needs people who will punch cash registers, enter data, empty bedpans, and take household garbage to the dump, these purposes are too small for most human beings. People know when their gifts are being wasted, and this knowledge can eat away at the soul like a cancer.

In Buddhist teaching, right livelihood is one of the flagstones on the Noble Eightfold Path. Along with right speech, right intention, right action, and right effort, right livelihood is a key step in waking up to the true nature of reality, which includes the true nature of you. The inherited wisdom is that certain kinds of work are bad for you. Being a hired killer is not so good, for instance. Neither is selling drugs, arms, or sex. The basic principle is to do no harm. Beyond that, you are free to do quite a lot of things for a living, but they are not all going to come with their own evident purposes. Supplying that purpose is going to be up to you.

Work as Spiritual Practice

The Indian philosophy of karma yoga—literally, the work path to God—is one of the many paths human beings have found that lead them deeper into the divine. Karma yogis approach their work as spiritual practice, whether it is something as menial as spinning thread or something as exalted as running a hospice. Since the point is to do useful work unselfishly, menial tasks can work even better than exalted ones. There is less possibility that your ego will get fat on packing groceries than on picking securities. There is less risk that you will spend your time thinking about what kind of Lexus you are going to buy with your next paycheck. “Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working,” says the Bhagavad Gita. Your motive is to lose your self in your work, understanding that it is possible to stack cans of beans on a grocery store shelf with the consciousness of a spiritual master.

Karma yogis approach their work as spiritual practice, whether it is something as menial as spinning thread or something as exalted as running a hospice.

Work connects us to other people. This is obvious for those who work in service industries. A snarling customer calls for the benevolence of a monk, at least if you do not want to seed an epidemic of snarliness. Every human interaction offers you the chance to make things better or to make things worse. To decide to make things better can cost you bundles of self-interest. To decide to make things worse generally feels a lot more powerful. The only problem is that the power rolls away from you like a rogue wave, as the person you slammed into finds someone else to slam into, and so on, and so on. The good news is that you can set off the same sort of chain reaction with unwarranted kindness. Kindness is not a bad religion, no matter what name you use for God.

No work is too small to play a part in the work of creation. At the Cirque du Soleil, the person who replaces the light bulbs is vitally important to the high-wire artist, who must see where to put her foot. At the Ford plant, the person in charge of left front tire bolts is vitally important to the mother who drives her children to school each day. Since this connection is not always apparent, it calls for a little extra effort. Any worker with a good imagination should be able to come up with hundreds of people who his or her work affects.

The Best Things in Life

In a world where the paid work that people do does not always feed their hearts, it seems important to leave open the possibility that our vocations may turn out to be things we do for free. I know an attorney whose vocation is dressing up as Santa Claus every Christmas so the children in his small town can tell him their heart’s desires. I know a teacher whose vocation is ironing sheets for hospice patients so their beds are as crisp as those in any four-star hotel.

While it is sometimes possible to turn your love into your work—especially if you can figure out how to live on less—that is not always the best idea. When the music you love to play becomes the music you have to play to pay the rent, your heart can suffer from alienation of affection. The poet Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company by day. T. S. Eliot was a banker, and Philip Levine was a Detroit autoworker.

At least part of the beauty of unpaid work is that we choose to do it. In the midst of lives driven largely by compulsion, the choice to take on more work simply because we love doing it is an act of liberation. Many years ago now I met with the other clergy in my small town on a monthly basis. We whined a lot, as most clergy do, about how hard our jobs were. We also encouraged one another, pooling our wisdom about how to keep our sense of vocation alive.

I felt most deeply for my Baptist colleague, whose religious tradition compelled him to preach three different sermons every week without falling behind on all the other tasks of keeping a medium-sized church going. If he stayed home until noon to work on his sermons, people complained that he was not available. If he came to the office to work on his sermons, people knocked on his door all morning long. What saved this guy, as far as I could tell, was the clown outfit in his closet. On his day off, he put it on and went wherever he could make people laugh: children’s hospitals, nursing homes, charity benefits. Without the makeup, he was a pretty serious fellow, so it made perfect sense that his exercise in freedom required a wild orange wig. One day he was telling us about his Saturday gig when the Presbyterian among us interrupted him.

“I just figured out what I’m missing,” he said. “I mean, what the rest of you have that I don’t. All of you do something else besides church.” He was right. The Methodist was a volunteer fireman. The Catholic taught Italian at a community college. I wrote books. All of us were committed to parish ministry, which was our main vocation. What allowed us to keep answering the call to do it, however, was knowing that there was something else we could do too.

In my case, that knowledge helped me take risks I might not otherwise have taken. It also reminded me that while my chosen vocation gave me a really good job in the divine work of creation, it remained a subset of a larger vocation, which was the job of loving God and neighbor as myself. Over the years I have come to think of this as the vocation of becoming fully human.

Since some people consider being human a liability, and “fully” would only make things worse, I should perhaps explain what I mean. To become fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good. It means growing gentler toward human weakness. It means practicing forgiveness of my and everyone else’s hourly failures to live up to divine standards. It means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity. It means living so that “I’m only human” does not become an excuse for anything. It means receiving the human condition as blessing and not curse, in all its achingly frail and redemptive reality.

Looking High and Low

One common problem for people who believe that God has one particular job in mind for them is that it is almost never the job they are presently doing. This means that those who are busiest trying to figure out God’s purpose for their lives are often the least purposeful about the work they are already doing. They can look right through the people they work with, since those people are not players in the divine plan. They find ways to do their work without investing very much in it, since that work is not part of the divine plan. The mission to read God’s mind becomes a strategy for keeping their minds off their present unhappiness, until they become like ghosts going through the motions of the people they once were but no longer wish to be.

Since I have felt that way myself, I have had to come up with ways to combat the ghostliness. The best cure is to find someone else’s feet to wash, but failing that, washing almost anything will do. When old work has become meaningless and new purpose is hard to find, I recommend cleaning baseboards: In the first place, the warm water feels good on your hands. In the second place, you have to get down on your knees to do it. In the third place, the baseboards look terrific afterward, sometimes for as long as three months.

Washing a dog also works, although large dogs may require more despondence than you actually have to work off. Washing windows is also good. After drought sucked all the water out of my shallow well earlier this year, I began taking my dirty clothes to the Laundromat in town. The last time I did this was in 1978, which means that I took about a dozen quarters with me this time. After I had loaded up the biggest washer with bedsheets and added the detergent, I stared at the lit red number 18 by the coin slot. What could it mean? Was this the 18th washer in the Laundromat? Did the wash cycle require 18 minutes? After a brief period of meditation I realized that I was meant to put 18 quarters in the slot.Eighteen quarters. As it turned out, I got a whole afternoon of playing children, new neighbors, honest work, and sweet-smelling sheets for just a little over $4.50.

I no longer call such tasks housework. I call them the domestic arts, paying attention to all the ways they return me to my senses. When the refrigerator has nothing in it but green onions that have turned to slime and plastic containers full of historic leftovers, I know my art is languishing. When I cannot tell whether that is a sleeping cat or an engorged dust ball under my bed, I know that I have been spending too much time thinking. It is time to get down on my knees. After I have spent a whole morning ironing shirts, folding linens, rubbing orange-scented wax into wood, and cleaning dead bugs out of the light fixtures, I can hear the whole house purring for the rest of the afternoon. I can often hear myself singing as well, satisfied with such simple domestic purpose.

This is my practice, not yours, so please feel free to continue calling such work utter drudgery. The point is to find something that feeds your sense of purpose, and to be willing to look low for that purpose as well as high. It may be chopping wood and it may be running a corporation. Whatever it is, perhaps you will hold open the possibility that doing it is one way to learn what it means to become more fully human, as you press beyond being good to being good for something, in a world with the perfect job for someone like you.