Kwanzaa 2021: Nia (Purpose)

What is your purpose here?

Even if you’ve thought a lot about the question and have an answer locked and loaded, there’s no denying it’s a heavy thing to ponder. What are any of us doing here, really? Why do we exist, and have the faculties to wonder about our existence? There is no objective answer to this question. Some find purpose in God, others find it elsewhere, others still give up looking. But if we want to improve things, it can be helpful to establish a North Star to guide our development. What’s the end goal for all of our projects? What exactly are we striving towards?

Nia, the fifth of our Seven Principles, can be a tough nut to crack. We’ve contemplated the need for unity within our community. We’ve celebrated the right to our own self-determination. We’ve acknowledged the responsibility of working together for the benefit of all. And we’ve dedicated ourselves to helping lift our kinfolk closer to success. But why?

Over time, I’ve come to think of purpose as an inherently community-focused idea. When we think about what we were put on this planet to do, we tend to think about how our actions benefit the people around us, the world as a whole. It’s rare that someone just comes out and says “My purpose is to make sure I get everything I want, all the time.” Even the most selfish of us think about our effect on others. It just feels right to frame our Nia in terms of what other people take from what we’ve left them.

The truth is it’s hard to think about our life’s purpose while we’re still living. Often we find ourselves in situations where we’re not thinking on such a high level; we’re just doing the best we can to survive. It can feel like thinking about our purpose is a luxury that most of us only get when actually have the time and space to do so, but I challenge that notion.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I was largely adrift. Over the last four years I had gone from a straight-A student to the most-average graduate — I was in the exact 50th percentile for the class of 1996. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I had no idea what I wanted to do there. I also knew that my family wouldn’t be able to afford it and my grades were in no shape to make a run at scholarships. So I decided to get a job at the mall and save up for a year.

Over the months, one job turned into three. I got up before sunrise to take the bus to the mall and got home around midnight every day after the last store closed. I was working every day because there was nothing else to do with my time — not really. While my high school friends were starting the next phase of their lives, I lived on cookies and Surge while selling toys at the Imaginarium, telescopes at The Nature Company, and Devil Sticks at Natural Wonders. I remember that time as intense and lonely, but I still look back at it really fondly. I forged my sense of purpose at that mall.

Thousands of interactions with relative strangers gave me some measure of insight into the commonalities of our experience. The best conversations — and sales — I had all centered around one thing: an ability to reach for someone, wherever they were, and take them by the hand into the wonder of the world around them. If I could have someone leave the store feeling a little more connected, with something that would remind them of their tie to the world around them, then I did my job whether or not they left with something.

I’ve taken this attitude into almost every job I’ve had since. If I was in a place that couldn’t incorporate that sense of coming together, the job became stressful and dispiriting. For me, everything I do that I want to mean something has to have that sense of connection. It’s not enough to say “this world is neat”; I want to be able to first express that I see and understand the heart of someone, and show them their reflection in the world outside their head. It’s my sincere belief that the more you look for the things you want in the world, the more you find them. I love helping people find those things if I can.

I know I can do this if I’m working at McDonald’s, writing a blog, chatting with someone in a grocery store line, or even the brief touch of getting a coffee from Starbucks. Just acknowledging someone’s personhood, thanking them for handing me a cup or a napkin, asking about a small detail or flourish they’ve added — it keeps me in shape for my purpose and reminds me that living my purpose isn’t a matter of subscribing to a vague ideal; it means doing, over and over again, learning and refining my actions as I gain wisdom.

Your purpose might be something different; it might be to remind others of the importance of truth, or to reaffirm the dignity of people our society has deemed worthless for one reason or another. You might find your purpose in an entirely different environment, like in the tranquility of nature, or the coziness of your home, or in the chaos of struggle. It could happen early or late in life or not at all; let’s be honest, no one can be certain of their life’s single purpose any more than we can be certain of the impact we have on our communities through time. All we can do is the best we can with the information and environment we’re given.

Still, thinking about our purpose can only help make our actions more deliberate and our decisions more meaningful. It can really help weighing major life decisions, like whether or not to take a job leading to wildly different outcomes. If you can’t find the seed of your purpose waiting to blossom within a decision you’re about to make, that’s worth looking into.

By the way, I just want to say that I fall short of my purpose all the time. I’m only an imperfect creature, after all, and I have a lot to learn about myself and the best way I connect with other people. But my purpose gives me a framework to think about and incorporate these lessons, and it provides me with some small measure of stability in an increasingly uncertain world. Over the last couple years, my renewed sense of purpose allowed me to get out of this major block. I hope I can help other people in that same way.

Happy Kwanzaa, everyone. May we carefully consider how we step forward, and make sure it’s in service to the purpose we hold close.

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