Committing to Your Purpose in a World of Cheap Substitutes

By No'a Bat Miri, Milford, CT
Essays 2017 / Finalists

MyLife Essays Contest 2017

Many parents loathe the day their little one discovers the word “why.” It’s not simply that children can be quite indefatigable in their exploitation of this subtle weapon that bothers a parent, but the thought that this is where her failure begins: after feeding, cleaning, and giving all of the other little bits of love available to this child, that one simple question slashes through the world, leaving gaping wounds and monstrous tears, some that can be healed with what is taught in schools or at home, and others that the child will wrestle with throughout life, possibly never finding an answer capable of making things whole. The question of purpose haunts not only the young or the poor, but also people who come across as successful and established. Chassidic views of tafkid—an individual higher purpose—as well as the tools of bittul—submission to the Divine—and the triad of intellectual qualities from which Chabad Chassidut takes its name— chokhmah, binah, and da’at, respectively wisdom, understanding, and knowledge—provide direction and energy with which one can find, maintain, and pursue personal purpose with the same strength that children explore life through their sacred “why.”

It must be said that, as humans, we are cluttered with purposes. Many people do very meaningful work as a career, and others are dedicated to keeping their families cared for, some juggle both and much more. We can invent any number of purposes for ourselves and for others in a lifetime, but we are each created and brought down into this life with one tafkid, a unique purpose that could occupy the smallest corner of our lives or absorb our entire being. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, henceforth referred to as the Besht, said that a full life of eighty years could have happened for the sake of a small favor, material or spiritual. [1] That task is our special connection with the One, with everything. It could be behind us, it could be ahead of us, and it could be hidden in any interaction we might have with other people or our environment. Often, though, it’s entrenched in our deepest passion. How do we know? Can we know?

Career counseling often asks the classic question: what would you spend your time doing if you didn’t have to worry about money? This might have been more reliable in a different era, but now it invites counter questions. How much money are we talking about? Is there anything that can’t be bought? Is retiring to Tahiti a valid answer?

But the question intends to get at what a person is passionate about, what she enjoys doing with her time, what gives him a sense of accomplishment. Washing the dishes after they’ve been piled up in the sink for a few days can give a rather strong sense of accomplishment, but it’s likely not the penultimate purpose of your existence (Although, if your mother or wife suggests that it is, it might be helpful to play along.). Similarly, enjoyment is not as important as a sense of meaning. [2] Most of us enjoy abundance and affection, but so do birds and dogs and cherry trees. Fame and fortune are animal purposes in human clothing, though many of the things that can exalt one into such states are unquestionably divine. One question you should ask about your passion is, of course, “why?” If you’re passionate about something because you’re sure it’ll make your life better, it’ll make you look better on paper or in pictures, it likely isn’t your spiritual purpose. It might be something else you’ve been sold by consumer advertising. Here is a good moment to point out that the meaning of “passion” was originally “suffering.” Is your passion worth suffering for? What are you willing to give up for a luxury product or to have a remarkably and exceptionally lovely body? Time with your family, money, the chance to pursue an interesting career that doesn’t pay as
much as you “need?” If you are unwilling to suffer for something, it’s likely not your purpose.

But, but, but! How can someone say that naturally talented people aren’t pursuing their tafkid when they create great works of art, when they inspire entire nations with their performances, when they change the world with their inventions? Even people with profound talent need to work very hard and struggle to achieve great things, whether those things are divinely ordained or not. The Rebbe told some of his emissaries that it’s the things we have a strong connection with that are often most difficult to us, that we will have an internal battle to fight for beyond any external training. [3] The greatest writers face rejection after rejection and produce piles of unusable pages before crafting the magnum opus that garners them even a slice of recognition. Athletes and ballerinas train until their bodies are busted up before they ever get a shot at a medal. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm faced racism and resistance even after she was elected to serve on behalf of Brooklyn, including the insult of being assigned to the Agriculture Committee. When she met with the Rebbe, he told her it was a blessing that she, a woman who wanted to help the hungry and poor in their neighborhood, was given involvement in the fate of food surpluses in the country. [4] She persisted, creating WIC and expanding the Food Stamps program as a result, feeding the children of her constituents from the hands of her struggle.

This last example shows that we must look around us to find the path to forward our tafkid, even when it seems we’ve been put in a place where the unique roses of our purpose could never blossom.

But how can we make certain that we’ll be able to keep going when times get tough? We all have days when we don’t have the energy for our passion, when we don’t see any land on the horizon and sailing isn’t so smooth. And there’s definitely a time when everybody needs a break, whether it’s as simple as a few hours sitting in nature or a bona fide vacation. But often we lack
the ability to move forward with a project or decision because we haven’t learned enough, yet.

Wisdom, understanding, and knowledge might sound interchangeable in English, and they’re certainly related, but they’re distinct. One understands that a machine works a certain way, one knows how to assemble the machine and use it, and if one is wise, one knows when and how to use it best. We are all complex and beautiful machines, living in a series of complex and beautiful machines. Of course we can scratch by with just a bit of information and getting the gist of things, but that often doesn’t cut it with big ticket items like leading a purposeful, fulfilling life.

Of course we want to study our particular passion, and we want to practice: ballerinas need to spin, engineers have to do a lot of math problems, parents are met with an unyielding onslaught of different guides for doing the best for their children at any given moment in life. There are limits to the utility of this information, of course, but most of us could stand to learn more.

But we all need to learn more about our souls, what it is that the One loves about us, what that Divine Mind was thinking when trusting us with our special task. We can do this by taking more time for reflection, and by having candid conversations with the people who guide us in life. We can also read any number of spiritual texts for encouragement and intellectual provocation.

And what about when we are too tired to learn?
There’s always bittul. The literal meaning of bittul is annulment, but in the case of our purpose it refers to annulment of our ego, of who we think we are, what we think we deserve, how we believe we should be progressing. You have a special assignment from the Eternal One, but you don’t see the rubric. Spending your time engaged in simple acts of kindness can help you recoup your energy for learning and acting, but it also might provide direction as you pursue your purpose.

And so comes the day parents both covet and fear: the child has grown, exceedingly. Perhaps she is now smarter than either of her parents could ever hope to be, perhaps his heart is more tender and deep than anyone thought imaginable. The child comes with that final why, why am I on this planet, in this life? And the parent embraces that she can’t tell him.

In the early days of shlichut, the Rebbe sent an emissary to London. The emissary, Rabbi Nachman Sudak, asked what he should do once he arrived. The Rebbe would not give him an answer, a list, a program, a schedule, but instead asked what he should tell him, and said that there were thousands of things to be done. [5] This wasn’t the only time he encouraged people to go forward into their own sensibilities, having literally told another Rabbi who called for advice that “sometimes, one needs to speak to himself.” [6]

We ask others when we aren’t sure. You might feel that the thing you are meant for isn’t holy enough: people will laugh, what will your mother think, what will the neighbors think? And sometimes that’s understandable. You want to be sure that you’re making a thoroughly contemplated and well-informed decision. But remember that Chabad has sent shluchim to far corners of the earth, places where the first response anyone has would be, “there are Jews there?” And just as Chabad shluchim are tasked with finding the Jews in the dark jungles of this planet, tucked into caves on treacherous mountainsides, off on otherwise abandoned islands, and making sure that they have matzah for Passover or candles for Shabbat or tefillin for daily prayers…
there is a little piece of the world with your name on it, and it cries for you to imbue it with light.

That’s yours. Cherish it, learn it, pursue it.

Sources and Footnotes
[1] “Thirty-Six Aphorisms of the Baal Shem Tov.”
[2] Parker, Clifton B. “Stanford Research: The Meaningful Life Is a Road worth Traveling.” Stanford University
[3] Likutei Sichos, 16 Tammuz 5712, Sichos Kodesh p. 280
[4] Zaklikowski, Dovid. “Turning Disappointment into Food for the Hungry.”
[5] “Rabbi Nachman Sudak, 78, OBM.” Collive. Chabad On Line
[6] Weinreb, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh. “Talk to Yourself.” Life & Times.