On living with purpose...
I'm in the middle of yet another fantastic book. This one is entitled An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, written by Barbara Brown Taylor , the same woman who wrote Leaving Church - another book that blew my mind.
The chapter I started today is called, The Practice of Living with Purpose - Vocation. So very appropriate since I have spent the better part of the past couple of weeks berating myself for not being a good enough homeschooling mother or wife or friend or daughter or sister or human being. I'e been wondering if I should go out and get "a real job" and earn some money for myself. What exactly is the purpose of my life? Is my sole reason for being alive right now as simple as getting these kids ready for and into college and out into their own lives? See? It was perfect timing for me to begin this chapter today.
The author begins by listing all the jobs she has ever been paid for. Interesting list.
Here's mine: I've been a babysitter, dog walker, camp counselor, camp laundress, college dining hall worker, college library worker, security guard, college admissions officer at my college alma mater, alumni relations officer for the same college, junior and high school Spanish teacher and college admissions counselor at my high school alma mater, Bible teacher, speaker, and retreat leader. I made jewelry for a while but sold precious few pieces - I think that counts anyway.
There was something about getting paid for my work that made it more meaningful and significant than doing all this work at home and not get paid for it. Receiving a regular paycheck made that work feel like it mattered more, that someone needed me enough to pay me to show up, and that my presence in that building on all those days was worthy of a tangible reward. I know I'm not supposed to feel this way, or I can feel it, but I shouldn't admit it publicly. I know I'm supposed to receive Oprah's oft-repeated declaration - being a stay-at-home mom is the hardest job in the world - as payment enough. Sorry, O, it's not enough anymore. The God's honest truth is that I work very hard every single day and don't earn any money. I don't get weekends off, nor am I allowed to wander far from my office. In fact, when I'm out of the house, on my way someplace in my minivan, that becomes my office. With two teenage children who have cell phones of their own, I'm on call 24 hours per day. Yes, I get to travel alone every now and then, but it certainly doesn't add up to the equivalent of 4 weeks paid vacation, not by far.
The point of this is not to complain. Really, it's not.
Well, maybe a little.
But that's not the main point.
The main point is that this chapter on vocation in this well-crafted book on how faith gets lived out in the world has given me a much-needed new perspective on what it means to live with purpose - whether or not I earn a salary or any accompanying benefits. Apparently a similar readjustment to one's life purpose happened several centuries ago to a certain monk named Martin Luther.
According to the book I'm reading, Martin Luther was a monk who became convinced that no livelihood was dearer to the heart of God than any other, so he left the monastery to proclaim the priesthood of all believers. He said, "Whatever our jobs in the world happen to be, our mutual vocation is to love God and neighbor. None of the things with which you deal daily are too triffling to tell you this incessantly if you are but willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools and other implements in your house and estate, and they shout this to your face; "My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.'"
The author goes on, referencing the tools and other implements of her paid jobs: "With Luther's encouragement, I went on to use martini glasses on serving trays, saddles on spotted ponies, communion bread and wine, newspaper stories, bouquets of flowers delivered to nursing homes, suppers cooked for friends, checks from my checkbook, and green ink on student essays as powerful means of engaging my vocation."
This next part is the part that touches me deeply today, on this Wednesday in the middle of a week in which I have complained a lot - out loud and to myself - about how unfulfilled and underappreciated and unseen and taken for granted I feel: "Everyone of those tools gave me ample opportunity to choose kindness over meanness. Every one of them offered me the chance to recognize the divine in human form, inviting me out of myself long enough to engage someone whose fears, wants, loves, and needs were at least as important as my own. Of course, they also gave me ample opportunity to act like a jerk, missing my purpose by a mile. Yet even this turned out to be helpful, since recognizing my jerkdom is how I remember that is not who I want to be."
Even during weeks like this, when driving here, there, and beyond becomes the main activity of my day, when laundry piles never seem to diminish, while dirty dishes, crumbs and dust seem to multiply, I can choose kindness over meanness. When the things that used to be small annoyances begin to cause my heart to race and my blood pressure to rise precipitously, I can choose peace over pouting. In the face of the umpteenth apology for the same grievance, I can choose forgiveness over bitterness. In every stalled conversation and frigid exchange, I can choose to start again with a smile and a kind word. When I am gathering my thoughts and mentally listing all the complaints that I will use when I verbally attack someone I claim to love, I can choose to take a deep breath instead, sit silently for a moment, and remember that my husband and children are tired and cranky too - that they deserve to be loved and honored and welcomed home in their current state of exhaustion just as much as I do. They too have unfilled dreams, longing for love, and unmet needs - just as I do. I can choose to focus on them and not only on myself and my sorrows.
Lest I come across as sounding a little too holy and selfless - even to myself - I hereby publicly confess that I will also give myself permission and space to be a jerk when I need to be, to be wretchedly human, to curse, to gripe and moan and groan, and sit unmoveably in my grouchiness. I will cry and stomp my feet and do some revenge shopping and be angry. I will overeat and stay up too late watching inappropriate things on television, and mix myself a strong drink or two to wash it all down with. But after all that, I will lay my jerkiness and crabbiness and selfishness aside and ask forgiveness for yet another mess I've made.
Barbara Brown Taylor: Since some people consider being human a liability, and "fully [human]" would only make things worse, I should perhaps explain what I mean. To become fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete good. It means growing gentler toward human weakness. It means practicing forgiveness of my and everyone else's hourly failures to live up to divine standards. It means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity. It means living so that "I'm only human" does not become an excuse for anything. It means receiving the human condition as blessing and not curse, in all its achingly frail and redemptive reality. "The glory of God is a human being fully alive," wrote Irenaeus of Lyons some two thousand years ago.
If that is so, if abundant life is possible even beyond these piles of laundry, if joy unspeakable is possible even when I have to cook yet another hastily made, even more hastily consumed meal, if peace that passes understanding is possible when I have yet another prescription to fill and yet another floor to scrub, if being fully alive is possible in the midst of and beyond all this grit and grime (and I've heard it said countless times that all things are possible!), then that is the life I want. That is the only life I want.
The purpose of my life, whether I ever get paid for my daily work again, is be to become the fully, wholly, divinely, completely human being God created me to be.