[warning: raw post ahead, proceed with caution]
At a retreat this past weekend, a brother asked me “When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?” He is in the midst of writing a book and wanted to prove his thesis on me, something about purpose in life (I didn’t stick around long enough to find out). I was shocked and a bit embarrassed when I could offer no answer. I scoured the scraps of memory of what I knew from my childhood, and other than a delusional desire to be Superman, I had nothing. I think my friend was a bit annoyed that his theory didn’t work on me, and so was I frankly.
Sure, like many other kids, there were “faddish” desires, when for a few days I wanted to be a cop, a few days I wanted to be a weatherman, etc. But nothing lasted very long or went very deep. No abiding desire. Maybe this is more common than I realize, but for me it seems different from what all my childhood friends experienced.
Honestly, the first time I felt purpose was when I felt called to the ministry after becoming a Christian. My years as an unbeliever were spent lost, in pain and completely without direction. After becoming a Christian in 1989, I took up reading quite a bit, esp. the Scriptures (I had never really been interested in reading before). Eventually this grew into research skills and teaching gifts, flowering into what I perceived to be a calling - according to my reading of Ephesians 4 the “pastor/teacher.” I longed to teach God’s word in such a way that people actually came to know and experience God.
I began developing this gift, this calling, through various means - teaching Bible College classes, attending graduate school in theological studies, researching and writing a thesis, etc. (particularly in the years 1998-2001) I thought I had finally found my purpose, what I had been put on earth for.
The dark spectre of “whatever the hell God is up to” began knocking on my door in 2001 (more like, knocking down the damn door - sorry for the language folks, I’m feeling a lot of pain as I write this, deal with it). As external circumstances fell through and internal resources dried up, my calling all but disappeared except for a few scraps, a few pieces of rubble here and there. Testaments to a life never to be, it seems. Despite numerous attempts to re-build some sense of calling, of purpose, I remain, sometimes excruciatingly, without a sense of purpose. A frequent pattern for me is to see someone’s earthy passion in an area that mildly interests me (e.g., spiritual formation, pastoral work, etc.) and to either feel jealous and collapse into sadness or try to “try on” their perspective, their vision to see if there is some form of “fit.” (what I mean by “earthy passion”: passion with clay feet, from someone who feels strong desire but who has enough brokenness in their life to not be an ass about it).
I’ve learned to accept it (maybe resignation?) and try to be present with what is before me and not worry about what “could” be, what should have been, or what might be. It’s just too damn painful to think of “what do I want to do?” questions. There have been definite benefits to this - I have let go of a great deal of anger with God, I’ve become a safe place for broken people to walk with, I’ve discovered aspects of God, his heart and his Word that I’ve never dreamed possible. I treasure these, I really do. Part of me longs to share what he’s given me, though, longs to lead others in similar experiences and understandings; but I don’t have any hope or indication that such a thing could even be possible or if that is what I really desire.
You see, I hate that word right now - Desire. “What do you want?” “What do you want to be?” As these questions provoke desire to be able to give an answer, they provoke a raw nerve, stir up a deep pool of pain that I have no clue what to do with. Desire only seems to equal pain. It’s easier to just survive and do the best with what I’ve got, try to help the next generation (my kids) find hope and meaning in life even though most of the time I feel completely lost myself.
To get back to my friend’s question this past weekend, I think I just had a new train of thought regarding all this crap. I wonder if the last 10+ years of purposelessness is actually just returning to what was always there when I was younger and not necessarily a new phenomenon. Maybe it has to do with something deep that was lost in my childhood years, something that never developed as it does for most other “normal” kids. I’ve often wondered what was lost back then with all the betrayal and abandonment I experienced, but little memory. Parents are supposed to provide kids with categories with which to navigate life, right? What happens to a kid when that doesn’t happen? What happens to dreaming, desiring, wanting to be something? I don’t know if I’ve ever looked at it that way before.
I know lots of people struggle with their vocation, feelings of meaninglessness, but I don’t think this is the same thing. The people who struggle with this seem (my perception here) to have a general direction in life peppered with occasional (perhaps even frequent) bouts of confusion and listlessness. I can’t claim to have any such direction, I only seem to live in the confusion.
I will try and talk to God about this, but it’s still pretty raw. The trust I have in him through years of wandering and being cared for will help me have some boldness now. I need to be honest about this pain; I take comfort in the fact that this is all he expects of me. Part of me doubts he’s able to do anything about it either. I wonder what he’ll have to say about that.