Listening to an online class by a Chassidic rabbi, I heard this: “We’re each put on this earth to do something unique, something which no one else can do. No one before you, and no one after you.”
A little pressure? No kidding.
He went on to say: “Fulfil your true and essential purpose. That’s where you will see and experience your ultimate blessings.”
High expectations? Heck, yeah.
I hear these words time and again. Why? Because they’re one of the countless mantras of Chassidim. What’s more, they’re encouraging, positive and impressive, so who wouldn’t be curious? Until you find yourself asking: “But what is my purpose in this world?”
I ask myself that regularly. There are days when maybe I do a good deed for someone and see that person benefit and I think, “There it is.” Maybe I call an elderly friend and wish them good Shabbos. Perhaps I bake a bunch of challah to give away and I think, “There it is. That’s my purpose. Or is it?”
The $64,000 questions are, How do we identify our purpose? And can we have more than one purpose in life? I think the answer to the second question is a resounding yes.
According to a wise rabbi I know, “Every element of our lives is an integral part of our purpose. It’s multi-faceted at every moment.” Sometimes, our purpose can be doing something that makes us happy. Sometimes, it’s the exact opposite – it’s something we struggle with that, in the end, serves a higher purpose and maybe even has a holy outcome. It’s certainly not random though.
As for identifying our purpose, that can be a bit trickier. My guess is that often we don’t even recognize it in the moment, but it’s there, nonetheless. If you have the privilege of recognizing G-d’s purpose for you, consider yourself lucky.
Some people are blessed to have one, humongous, overarching talent, like being an inspirational public speaker. Or a devoted caregiver. Or whatever. Most of us though – we fumble along searching for what resonates, not only with us, but with others. Because, in the end, we are a collective. What we do is never in isolation. Never. We always impact others. Even if it’s not immediately apparent.
We are not single humans floating around this world, alone, or islands unto ourselves. We’re an integral part of relationships – with G-d, with our loved ones, with our co-workers, with our friends. Even with strangers. What purpose we have in life only comes to life when it impacts others. We don’t exist in a vacuum, thank goodness, because those are filled with shmutz.
The thing is, the details of each individual’s purpose look different. Your purpose is something that no one else on earth can do. However, it all converges at the same point, which is to make the world a holier, more light-filled, compassionate place where G-d’s presence is revealed. Whoa, that’s some heaviosity! I dare you to unpack that.
Constantly dipping my amateur toes in the ocean of Judaism – Chassidism, to be specific – I am struck by how often I hear those words: revealing G-d’s presence in this world. Don’t ask me to explain it. I’m just a rookie, trying to understand it a tiny bit more every day. I have miles to go. But I’m certainly up for the challenge.
All I know is this: sometimes we seek out our purpose, sometimes it seeks us out; sometimes gently, sometimes it whacks us upside the head. It doesn’t matter how it happens. It only matters that it does happen. Sooner rather than later. Because sooner gives us an opportunity to do something great, even if it seems small or insignificant. Purpose is all relative. But to what? To the precise moment when that specific purpose finds its way into the world and affects another human being. That’s all it takes. Simple. Like neuroscience. Or astrophysics.
I don’t profess to have any answers or even suggestions, or insights. I just have my own experiences to share. For most of my life, it never crossed my mind that each of us has a purpose that we’re put on this earth to fulfil, except maybe for the obvious ones: teachers help kids learn, doctors heal people, mechanics fix cars. But what was my purpose?
I spent my working life as a librarian and communications officer at a public library. I mostly helped people find things and do research. For a short period, I was a children’s librarian, so I shared the love of literacy, reading stories, singing songs and teaching rhymes to little ones and their parents. Is that purpose? I’m not sure. Certainly it was fun. But it wasn’t what I would call meaningful, in the spiritual realm. Maybe I impacted a few people in some way, who knows. But did I change lives? It didn’t feel like it.
As a communications officer, I spent a good part of each day writing: annual reports, speeches, press releases, book reviews, brochures. Anything and everything. Was that my purpose in life? I doubt it. Maybe I touched a few people with the annual article I wrote in memory of my father’s yahrzeit. But did that give me purpose? Only momentarily.
Then I retired. And started volunteering.
First, I started baking challah buns, as part of the Light of Shabbat meals that Chabad Richmond delivers to homebound seniors on a regular basis, and delivering some of those meals. Now, I know it sounds kind of flimsy and trivial, but baking challah gave my life more meaning. I wasn’t just mixing ingredients, forming them into buns and baking them. As I learned from some rebbetzins, making challah is an auspicious time to give tzedakah and pray for what you want or need for yourself, for your family and for others. I knew that the people who’d be receiving my challah buns might not otherwise have challah for Shabbat. And, even if it wasn’t meaningful to them, it was to me. Oddly enough, that simple act of baking challah gave me a sense of purpose. Delivering it and shmoozing with the seniors was an extra bonus.
As my volunteer activities increased, so did my sense of purpose. When I began tutoring English to Israeli high school students via video chat through the Israel Connect program, I was terrified, but willing to try. After all, what did I know about teaching? Exactly bupkis. Little did I realize that the curriculum was only the supporting cast. The main actors were my student and me. While the goal of the program is for Israeli teens to become proficient in English vocabulary, comprehension and conversation – and they do – the meaningful stuff happens in our connection to one another. When you parse it, life is all about building relationships. About finding ways to connect. It’s about trust and compassion, learning and discovery. It’s about impact. Traveling both ways.
All that to say that having a sense of purpose in life doesn’t require monumental acts. It simply requires meaningful acts. Acts of giving.
So, go out and find your purpose. Or let it find you. Just get out of your own way.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.