At my 30th reunion at the University of Notre Dame, I squirmed in my seat In a crowded lecture hall. Father John Dunne offered his classic lecture on finding harmony between an individual’s heart’s desire and God’s intention for our lives. Dunne quoted a passage from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Dante’s Divine Comedy (“His will is our peace”), Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire , Charles Taylor’s view of theology in the secular age and others. Dunne pulled my soul strings. Try as I may, I can never shake that imbedded Catholic notion that I must have a purpose bigger than my own being. Somehow, at least in a small way, I've got to make the world a better place. But as I listened to the questions from the audience, it occurred to me that oftentimes this notion triggers my depression. If I can't see the long-term value of my actions with crystal clarity today, I doubt my value in general. The negative pattern starts. Why write? Why try? What is your purpose anyway?
One man, probably back for his 50th reunion, asked the question: "What happens when you know your heart’s desire, but then you lose it?" I wondered if the man had recently retired, lost a spouse, job or faltered in that limbo stage that often accompanies a major life transition. Dunne offered an analogy of tributaries to a divinely inspired river, but the questioner looked as frustrated as I felt. I wanted to give this fellow ND Domer some wise words from Viktor Frankl that gave me relief from the pursuit of the Holy Grail of Purpose:
“What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: 'Tell me Master, what is the best move in the world?' There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human experience. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
~Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning
When I read those words for the first time, my relief was palatable. I didn't have a single purpose that I might hit or miss like a batter with two strikes. In fact my purpose might change, needs to change as life changes around me. With every change that stretches us, often comes the gray area of doubt. The older I get, the more I realize there is no manual to help me through uncertainty. All I can do is step forward and have faith that my purpose will emerge. If I wallow in the gray, waiting for purpose to knock upon my front door, I can bank on depression as my houseguest.
I've started on a new book recently. To be honest, limbo feels a familiar state these days. I have no contract with a publisher and have no deadline besides the ones I impose on myself. I've spent the last couple of weeks on a story that doesn't work, and probably will scrap what I've done. When I complained to my husband Ken about yet another wasted day, what's the point, whine, snivel, whimper; he offered me an insight into his work. "98 percent of what I do in a day amounts to nothing. But I have to slug through the 98 percent to reach the 2 percent that works." He added with a smile, "There's not going to be a parade every day."
Damn. I really like parades.
The reality is that much of life requires a large degree of trial, error and doubt. But often from that doubt emerges an outcome far more powerful than we ever imagined. Dunne ended his talk with quote from Minnie Louise Haskin’s God Knows.
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
King George VI read this quote to his subjects for inspiration during uncertain times. Repeated by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, these words moved John Dunne, who inspired me. When Minnie Louise Haskin wrote this poem about 100 years ago, she had no idea her words might be a gift to a frustrated writer in 2012. Sometimes our purpose emerges in ways we won’t ever see. The key is to step forward. Be willing to try, fail and try again.
Thanks Minnie. Maybe I’ll give that story one more chance.