Among my most significant spiritual teachers is the late Dr. Howard Thurman, a renowned author, educator, and socially engaged mystic. He was a theological and pastoral guide to Martin Luther King Jr., and many others committed to the struggle for freedom and building Beloved Community. There’s a quote from Thurman that became a meme on social media a few years back. Even people who have no idea who Thurman was, recite this: "Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." We come alive through living in alignment with our soul's purpose, embodying and expressing our authentic self. It does not necessarily mean being happy all the time, or having material wealth, or being free from suffering and struggle. Indeed, the most alive people I know push themselves beyond the bounds of ease and comfort, and take on challenges that require them to grow. Purpose is not the same as goals or outcomes, or even vocation. Purpose is the larger quality of Being your life is aimed toward, it’s a direction not a destination. Goals and vocation are some of the tangible ways purpose is expressed; they should be aligned with your purpose but they are the means rather than the ends. Purpose doesn’t have an end. It’s not something we complete and check off our list, but something larger than we are that we give ourselves to, something we live into day by day. Purpose belongs to the soul rather than the ego. It is greater than our small self can manage, and thus may create fear or resistance. The "Divine idea" for our lives is often beyond what we might ever imagine for ourselves - requiring faith, surrender, commitment, trust. Aligning with that is like swimming with the current, rather than against it, opening energy, resources and creativity. Discernment of purpose is a crucial theme in my seminary classes and one on one counseling and mentoring. There are many approaches to it of course, but let's turn again to Dr. Thurman. There were three questions he regularly asked people who were seeking clarity about their direction in life. I have often shared them with others, and I return to them again and again in my own spiritual journey. Each time they yield new dimensions of understanding. Thurman begins the inquiry with this: "Who are you?" Then after a long pause, he asks, "Who are you... really?" It’s something to meditate on, to walk with for a while before answering. Out of that "who," the next question he offers is, "What do you want?" The way he emphasizes want makes it clear this is not about a material or superficial desire, rather what is the burning in your bones, what is it that your soul must have. Sometimes he replaces the second question with "What are you for?" I hear this in two ways: what are you in favor of, and what is your usefulness. Both are fitting in a discernment of purpose. Finally, after achieving some clarity on that, the third question Thurman asks is, "How will you get it?" So, first a question of identity, then one of values and calling, and lastly one of means and intent. He asked these a lot - in his writing, preaching, counseling. And in reflection on one’s mortality, he also asked "How have you lived your life in the knowledge of your truth?" (Which implies you must first have some clarity about your truth!) In the epilogue to what is probably his best known book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman introduces what he called the "life’s working paper" as a way to approach that reflection. Each of us, he said, has a working paper that emerges from the totality of our personhood - our life experience, commitments, cultural and faith traditions, and our responses to the journey of living. In particular, it comprises the values that guide our life, the questions we wrestle with, and how we respond to the central issues of our time. Our working paper is shaped out of our engagement with life, but elevating it to the level of conscious awareness allows our intentional participation in that shaping. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman talks about the working paper of the prophet and teacher Jesus of Nazareth, and how it might serve as an invitation to our own. In other writing and speeches he talks about Life’s working paper - the purposes of Life Itself - and how through careful examination we can find clues toward a fuller understanding of what that might be. As you reflect on your own purpose - your working paper - you may wish to ask: What are your special gifts and talents? What can you see from the vantage point of your specific social context and set of experiences? What is the urging in your heart of how to express and serve and make a difference? It is often our struggles and hardships that become the greatest source of our insight, the unique gifts we offer the world. In Spirit nothing need be wasted.
This post is an excerpt from my book-in-progress. Part of it is adapted from my essay "Mysticism and Social Action: The Ethical Demands of Oneness," in Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet, edited by Gregory C. Ellison II. (WJK Press, 2020).