Habari gani, brothers and sisters?
Today’s principle is Nia, or Purpose. This is another one of those blue-sky concepts that could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and that can make it a little difficult to talk about. What context should we place Nia in? How does it fit in with the Nguzo Saba and our cultural identity as a whole?
This year I wanted to make sure I talked about the Seven Principles and how I think about them today, while drawing a direct line to our history to prove why they’re necessary. Dipping back into our shared history, we can see that so many things have been made possible when we unite under a common purpose — neighborhoods are transformed, rights are earned, our self-image is restored. Our best achievements as black Americans have come from a sense of purpose, a drive to achieve something. The civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Lives Matter and the election of Barack Obama all came out of that sense of purpose.
But there are also aspects of our history that show what can happen when we don’t align under that common purpose. Our own ancestors sold their own people into slavery; African history is marked by tribal warfare, genocide, and humanitarian crises; so many African governments are corrupt and unconcerned about the atrocities visited on people. Here in the United States, our culture chases after the material wealth dangled in front of our eyes instead of focusing on the enrichment and well-being of our community. So many of us have adopted the worst excesses of individualism and the wealth gospel; we only look for the best status symbols, the trendiest clothes, all empty symbols meant to cover up our intellectual and spiritual poverty.
What is our purpose, as individuals and as a people? What is our life’s work? What are we doing, each day, as a small gesture to get closer to that purpose? Again — it’s one thing to say who we are, to speak our identity into being, but it’s another thing to live that identity. It takes work, risk, sacrifice, and patience. Who we imagine ourselves to be is quite different than who we turn out to be, even as we take strides to live up to our best ideals.
My purpose, personally, is to help people feel more connected and engaged with the world around them. In my mind, the great sickness of our age is the lack of empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings. We’re so quick to judge other people. We’re so quick to judge ourselves. Learning to accept who we are is important because we can then extend that acceptance to other people; our family and friends; our neighbors and community; strangers, and eventually the entire world. That work is incredibly difficult, though, because of the culture we’ve built around us. We hate things within ourselves but refuse to do to the hard work necessary to change them; then we see others projecting those things and hate them for it, too. We hate people we see as failures — the homeless, the poor, immigrants, minorities. We hate people we see as successes — politicians, entertainers, athletes, business owners. It’s become too easy to see the people around us as signposts for what’s wrong with the world, but for the most part they’re simply who we would be in that position; just human beings struggling to do their best.
The older I get, the more I recognize the value of community. Human beings are social animals, and we need to identify with something larger than ourselves in order to be whole. That doesn’t need to be religion, mind you; it can just as well be the potential of humankind to achieve things that are currently only in our imaginations. I want to give myself over to the ideal that we can overcome the things that divide us while celebrating the things that make us unique; I know that if we come together our collective brilliance can make a legitimate utopian society. I also know that we have a long way to go in achieving that dream, precisely because the kind of person I would need to be is so far off.
So my purpose is to learn how to connect and engage with the world around me, to accept myself and others as they are. By speaking up and sharing how I stumble towards that purpose, perhaps I can help other people avoid similar pitfalls or come up with better ways to navigate around them. Perhaps I can encourage other people to loosen their judgements of others and see why they are worthy of love and respect just as they are. Perhaps I can help others fight against ideologies that prevent us from coming together.
As I get older and wiser still, my sense of purpose may change. How I expect that purpose can be achieved may change. But that’s OK; it’s important to adjust your beliefs based on new experiences, insights, information. All any of us can do is the best we can, but it’s important to know what you’re pouring your effort into, and for what reason. It’s definitely difficult to do, especially at first, but the more we think about it, the better we get at aligning our actions towards it.
Today, I invite all of us to think about our Purpose — not just for individual success, but for the success of the people we care about, the groups we belong to, the human race. Those huge, over-arching goals can be tied to the little things we do every day by thinking about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether the action moves us closer to or further away from our purpose. Then, we adjust accordingly.
This is an especially good practice right before New Year’s, I have to admit. I’ll be thinking a lot about this as I make my goals for 2018.