I recently read an online article by Ed Stych entitled “My High School Classmates’ Obituaries Taught Me to Love Them” ( https://tinyurl.com/y59ddy8k). It wasn’t the title that caught my eye. I actually went looking for the article after seeing the teaser below on Facebook.
Ed Stych used this quote that he found in Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl by N. D. Wilson who posed it when asking why God brings each of us into being. The article itself gave me food for thought; however, it was this quote that grabbed my attention. I started contemplating it, not in terms of the lives of friends, family and others or even how I fit into the drama being played out daily with them. I started mulling over my purpose. Why was I created? Mark Twain said that “the two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I’m wondering if there is only one “why” — maybe there are several and maybe we aren’t even aware of them. And maybe that purpose has nothing to do with what society tells us we should value and pursue.
Like many girls in my generation I was told that I would grow up, marry, and raise children. It seemed my purpose had been determined at birth. Until it wasn’t. Prince Charming didn’t ride up on a white steed. He showed up in a Ford, and he didn’t stay. However, I still had a son to raise so at least part of my purpose, it seemed, was intact.
I followed a career path encouraged to many females born in the 50s. “Do you want to be a teacher or a nurse?” Those are good “just in case” careers for women — you know, just in case Prince Charming has a bad heart or an auto accident… I grew up playing school with my dolls, my friends, my kid sister and brother so it seemed only logical to choose teaching. By the time I graduated from high school I had a tiny glimmer of desire for something else but not the desire or the courage to do what was needed to really pursue it.
I majored in education so that I could teach the subject I loved. I never got to teach drama or speech because schools had already begun cutting the “extras,” but I had a wonderful career teaching English.
Teaching was good. I certainly used my love of drama and speech as I performed for my audience each day. I found that I loved being involved in shaping the lives of young people, helping them maneuver the hazards of adolescence, and watching them blossom as they left us and went into the world. (Notice: nothing about great literature or grammar, but more about that later.) I felt that what I was doing mattered. It wasn’t going to make me wealthy or give me prestige, but it mattered.
So maybe I had two purposes: first as a mother and secondly as a teacher. I threw everything I had into those two roles. But children grow up and leave. Before I was prepared for it coming (mostly because I didn’t want to believe it was looming so closely), I was an empty nester. And I thought about those hundreds of children who entered my life every year and then promptly moved on and away. Was this it?
I somewhat jokingly acknowledged that I had gone straight from being Pete’s daughter, to Jerry’s wife, and finally to Travis’s mother. Now I had to figure out who I was…on my own…without a male’s name in my identity. What was I going to do with my days and nights and weekends and summers from here on. Of course I still had my career, but I was seeing that I needed more. I saw it. I questioned it. I was challenged and overwhelmed by it. And I opened a novel or turned on the tv and escaped the question.
Schools have opened for seven years without me now. Yet I still identify myself as a teacher. I spent thirty years teaching. And like many Americans, I identified myself by what I did rather than who I was. I think I am not alone. And I think that teaches a dangerous lesson to our children.
Our culture teaches us several things that get in the way of finding out who we are meant to be and what our purpose is in this life. The world tells us that the value of people is equal to the balance showing in their checkbook, the combined worth of their savings and stock portfolio, and their job title. It involves how big the house is, how new the car is, and who has the most toys! It has to do with attractiveness, fashion, and being one of the “cool kids.” We hear people say, “His kids turned out good. One is a doctor and the other owns a business. They make a boat load of money.” Does that really mean they are “good” people?
I’d like to suggest that looking only to those things for purpose and to determine if a life has value is a very shallow measuring tool. Gathering crap is not a purpose. There is a plethora of evidence that no amount of wealth, fame, and acquisition of material goods will bring real happiness and satisfaction. Look around. Suicide runs rampant. The list below of people who died by suicide merely gives an example by scratching the surface and their names show up easily in a search because of the very things that made their lives so worthy – their wealth and fame:
- Anthony Bourdain, chef and television star
- Spalding Gray, actor and writer
- Kate Spade, fashion designer
- Hunter S. Thompson, writer
- Robin Williams, comedian
- Ernest Hemingway and Margaux Hemingway, the writer and his super model granddaughter
- Mindy McCready, country music star
- Junior Seau, football star
- Mike Alfonso, wrestler and star of WWE
- Lee Thompson Young, who as only 29 when he failed to show up for work shooting Rizolli and Isles
And then there are those who didn’t necessarily commit suicide but show their life struggles through their drug addictions and deaths from overdoses. Again using only those in the headlines shows a smattering of the problem which is pervasive in our culture. Look at the names of some of the rich and famous society considered valuable who really didn’t think of themselves so highly. Tom Petty, Prince, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cory Monteith, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Margot Kidder, Jimi Hendrix, John Belushi, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, Hank Williams, Sr. These creative people cut short their own lives through drug and alcohol use while seeking something they were lacking. These once inspiring people have become the cautionary tales we should be paying attention to.
And, please, don’t think these are limited to the rich and famous, to the creative types, or anything else these folks have in common. It happens all too frequently. If you read history, after the stock market crash in 1929, there was a rise in suicides. Men who deemed that their worth came through their job titles and paychecks felt they had no value any more. They couldn’t face their families and communities.
The current state of our country is dire. The number of suicides in the US has risen 33% since 1999. The opioid crisis and other drug use continue to cost people their families, their livelihoods, and their lives. Depression diagnosis is on the rise, and the disease is often a prelude to the drugs, alcohol, and suicide. These are deaths of despair. And the despair comes from placing too much value on the wrong things and too little on what is good.
Who truly has more value and importance to people? Mother Theresa or a real-estate developer tearing down nature or low cost housing to put up expensive buildings? Antonio Brown who can sign a one year contract with the Patriots for $20 million or a Pennsylvania fire fighter who shows up to save your family and your home earning somewhere around $43,000 (on average)? Robert Downey, Jr. who earns $40 million per film or a registered nurse who keeps your family member alive while earning around $69,000 per year.
I believe we have a very warped sense of values in our society. And we all buy into it on some level or at some time. We need to be deliberate in determining and living out our values. We need to recalibrate what is important. Concentrate on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Develop and really value honesty, moral courage and vision, compassion, intelligence, learning, creative thinking, fairness, generosity, fortitude, justice, respect, perseverance, and courtesy. We need leaders in our country, our state, our towns who demonstrate these character traits. But just as importantly, we need them in our businesses, schools, places of worship, and homes.
As I thought about purpose and whether I was here as an “extra in someone else’s scene or a comic throwaway,” I knew that I could start to get very depressed. I could get trapped thinking about my finances. I might wallow in memories of the past or how I feel in social situations. I know that I might have missed some of my purpose but that there is still time. I also know that my purpose in life has little or nothing to do with money, material things, fame, or other things that people would say makes someone merit esteem.
While I was satisfied in my role as a teacher, my true purpose there wasn’t necessarily just the teaching of English. I enjoyed introducing books and writers to my students, watching them find their own voice in writing, or even learning when to use “then” as opposed to “than.” But I was not fulfilled by that aspect.
Fulfilling my God-given purpose there had more to do with being the right person at the right time in a teenager’s life. I was often there to help someone figure out a path, wade through some tough times, and maneuver the relationships. For some I became a surrogate mother figure during the school day. I was where they could come when they were hungry, when they needed a hug because they were feeling low, and to get advice on everyday choices. I shared their joys in first dates, a great grade on a tough test, a winning game, a good hair day, and best friends. I helped them think through whether the boyfriend was really treating them the way they wanted to be treated, what to do after graduation, how to solve the disagreement with a friend, parent, or teacher. I also found myself listening to tales of dating violence, divorces, abuse, and suicidal thoughts. I held them as they mourned the death of grandparents, parents, and classmates. I don’t guess that I have had a major impact on the world. But I know that I was called to be a teacher in that small school in that small town where I could make an impact on some lives. I hold on to the quote from the teacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe who said, “I touch the future. I teach.” Hopefully some of those students went out and touched the lives of others and what I tried to do was paid forward and has spread.
I still wonder if I have more purpose to my life — especially now that my teaching days are behind me. But I’m sure that God will show me what it is and where I need to be…even if I fall into it like I did all those years ago when the circumstances of my life led me to apply at that school district determined that I would get a job.
Have you figured out your purpose? Are you where you should be and doing what fills your soul? Think about what you were put here to do and notice the real value in it.