I often wake up in the middle of the night. Our children are scattered around the world now, so my typical insomnia starts when I wake and start wondering whether they're safe. You know: the usual helpless parent's rabbit hole of anxiety.
But last week something weirdly different happened. I was sound asleep when I heard a male voice -- definitely not mine -- asking, "What is your purpose?"
If I were religious, I would say it sounded like the voice of God. Or, better put, it sounded like the stereotypical voices of God you hear on TV shows, movies and even cartoons. You know the kind of voice I mean -- deep, authoritarian, sonorous.
But I don't actually believe it was God's voice, since I'm still on the fence when it comes to my belief system, practicing Buddhism or attending Unitarian services with equal enthusiasm. I've decided the voice must have emerged from deep within me, springing from that place where I am neither male nor female, but a simple human floundering with life's big questions.
"What is my purpose?" I asked, panicked enough to sit up in bed and wake my husband, who made a befuddled Scooby Doo noise and promptly went back to sleep.
Not me, though. I sat up for another hour or so, pondering the question. In fact, the pondering continued for several days.
We humans are flawed enough to believe that we ought to have a purpose that goes beyond breathing, sleeping, eating, raising our kids, and keeping the hearth warm. If asked, most people say they find their purpose in work, family, and community. I would probably say the same. My husband and I have raised five children and, coincidentally, I'm wrapping up my fifth novel for Penguin.
I've done my bit to give back to the community, too, volunteering for schools, nursing homes, and libraries, and by donating money to larger causes. Still, I am constantly wondering if all of this is enough.
If we're lucky, we manage to shoulder the work, health, and family responsibilities we're dealt with and still have energy to spare. We can use that energy to help others less fortunate than ourselves. Even so, the world constantly seems to be spinning out of control around us, doesn't it? There are starving refugees, mosquito plagues that cause birth defects in countries that forbid birth control, terrorist attacks, racial tensions and political showdowns between presidential candidates who sound like your worst nightmare of drunk relatives at the Thanksgiving table.
Most of us get through our days one busy moment at a time. We go to work and the gym, get the oil changed in our cars, give money and time to the needy. We're too busy to reflect. But, if we do slow down, this is the question that plagues us, whether we have religion in our lives or not: Why are we here?
If you do believe in God, how do you best serve Him? If you don't, how do you live a charitable, fulfilling, generous, honorable life?
Our tasks seem too big at times. We retreat into NetFlix and glasses of wine, wishing we weren't so busy, so tired, so overwhelmed. So freaked out by the sheer magnitude of the world and its problems.
Yet we cannot be human without continuing to reevaluate our purpose periodically, and we cannot be our best selves without striving to find a better answer to it every time.
This time around, I have decided to quit dodging the question and really reflect on it for a bit. So far, I am declaring that my purpose is threefold:
1) To embrace everyone around me with as much kindness and compassion as I can muster -- whether those people are in my family or that guy on the corner begging for change.
2) To continue writing, because that's where my intellectual passion lies.
3) To nourish my own spirit by slowing down whenever it all gets to be too much, so that I can ask and answer this question again, frequently.
How about you? What is your purpose? And have you found your answer?