purpose

Discovering Our Purpose: Do I Choose My Path, or is it Chosen for Me?

A Long and Winding Road

I’ve had a tumultuous journey getting to where I am today. There are many reasons – undiagnosed bipolar disorder I was 35, undiagnosed ADHD until I was nearly 40, and a paralyzing lack of purpose in my life (for which those first two were contributing factors). I worked almost immediately after college at a variety of jobs, some good jobs that could have led to “successful” careers (quotations to be explained presently), others mere bill-payers: restaurant jobs, cashier, etc.

This elusive longing for purpose was always on my mind. After 9/11 I enlisted in the Army – twice. I was denied both times, for reasons that are unimportant here. I’ve always had a desire for, and continue to pursue a career as a fiction writer. That story is still being written. And I spent three years in religious formation and seminary with a Catholic religious order, the Augustinian Friars.

I didn’t attend college until I was 27 years old, when I enrolled at Villanova University as a theology and philosophy double major, classics minor. I pursued a graduate theology tract, because while I knew I wanted to enter the seminary after college, I also knew that could change, and since I loved the studies I thought teaching would be a great backup. I’ve half-joked many times that someday I’ll write a memoir called, “Funnier Than Cancer: Making God Laugh by Telling Him Your Plans.” And yes, I’ve had cancer, too, so I’m allowed to make cancer jokes. I earned that right the hard way.

It was during my time with the Augustinians that I was diagnosed as manic-depressive. Up until then I was becoming a disturbance to the friars, but their patience, kindness, and love were overwhelming. My formation director, Fr. Luis, provided me with guidance and a gentleness that helped me to discern the next step in my journey. After several months of treatment I came to see that, while the life they live is a beautiful one, it was not the life for me. I left the Augustinians, and moved on.

Once again, however, I was faced with this question of purpose. What in the world was I supposed to do? I worked as a freelancer in a variety of projects – some marketing consulting, journalism, ghost writing a novel, editing a novel, plus court transcribing for my mother’s business. I knew I wanted to find full-time, steady work, but I ran into one big problem: the economy stunk, and I didn’t receive a single call for an interview after submitting hundreds of resumes. Not one. I knew that if I could just get that interview I could get the job, but I couldn’t even get that far. It was demoralizing.

Discovering Our Purpose

Finally, however, that opportunity came. A consultation with a headhunter helped me to rework my resume, and I went from not being able to secure an interview for entry-level positions to fielding two separate offers for senior-level roles in PR and marketing. I began working for CBRE, and my career trajectory has changed forever. Now I find myself as Director of Marketing for a commercial real estate technology firm, a great job with a great salary and great job security at a great company and plenty of room to grow. It seems to me that I’ve fallen into a career in marketing – and hey, Marco Rubio, I really like you, but my philosophy degree is working out just fine. More importantly, I discovered a higher fulfillment when I married my lover and my best friend, Danielle.

Destiny and Freedom

The point of my sharing this back story of my own life is not mere self-indulgence. Rather, it gets to the heart of a question with which many of us grapple: do I define my own path, or is it defined for me? In theology this becomes a question of predestination, the relationship between free will and God’s will. The answer, I believe, is a mixture of the two.

To say that we have a purpose in life is not the same as saying that we must follow a specific career path, that a certain job is our destiny, that there is only one person we must marry, and if we don’t take do these things that we are somehow rejecting our fate and increasing our chances of misery. Rather, our destiny is joy, it is happiness, it is love, it is faith, it is the recognition that we are beloved children of God, a God who wants to bless us with all good things but will not force those blessings upon us. He has created us free, because it is only in freedom that we can love and experience authentic joy.

Purpose Comes with a Compass, Not a Map

When we set our hearts upon these higher things, then the paths that lead us to that joyfulness become clearer to us. Few of us receive inspiration by means of a message from an angel. Revelation on the personal level is more like following a compass, and it’s up to us to make sure that the compass is properly calibrated, which we accomplish through faith, through living a life of kindness and mercy, and through a conscious pursuit of virtue.

The most difficult part of the journey sometimes is the inability to see where that path leads. We may have a compass pointing us in the right direction, but we won’t always have a map. Sometimes all we can do is take the next step and trust in God, perceiving only what the dim light reveals directly in front of us. That’s what faith is, a loving trust that God will always care for those who love him, and provide us with exactly the amount of light that we need.

One counter-point from my own life illustrates this well, I believe. I don’t always like being honest with myself, because when I am, too often I have to admit that I don’t really love God, or at least I don’t love him well. The forces of the world that I can see often appeal to me, in a vicious and distorted way, more strongly than the love of God. Yet inevitably, when I follow that path, when I allow my compass to become askew and thus I take steps in the wrong direction, disquiet and sadness consume my soul. The path that I’ve defined has taken me away from the destiny for which I’m chosen – to live as a child of God.

The Only Step We Can Take is the Next One

Discovering who we are and where we’re called to be is never easy, but we can easily overcomplicate it. The pressure to know exactly what we want to do and what we want to be and whom we are going to marry is forced upon us at an early age. It’s unhealthy. Parents, rather than force your children to choose a career, teach them to love God and love their neighbor and love themselves. Children, set your hearts on virtue, learn what it means to be good, come to appreciate what beauty really is. Then take the next step in front of you. It’s bound to be the right one.

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