When we were still shaking the sleep out of our ears last Tuesday morning, Dr. Ellis posed a big question to a small group of students: What is your highest purpose? And then there was a bigger question, Would you please reflect on this and then share the answer in a well-formed piece of prose that will be published on the internet? As monumental of a question as this is, when I was sitting in class on Tuesday, my answer came to me quite suddenly and simply, like that wise other-worldly voice Liz Gilbert talks with in her book Eat, Pray, Love: my highest purpose is to add to the beauty of the world.
In some sense, I think this is everyone's communal highest purpose, and we are all called to carry it out in different ways. Yet I think it my distinct and special mission to, as the Girl Scouts taught me, "Leave this place better than I found it." I constantly catch myself wondering like a child at the beauty in the world and longing to participate in it. (For example, I love churches, libraries, and museums for their vast collections of prayers, books and pieces and can't help musing about how one building can hold so much beautiful human creation.) It is a broad higher purpose, and I like that because it leaves room for interpretation and many different manifestations. I think that it is a purpose that will grow with me and move with me throughout my life. It is a guiding principle I can always come back to when making a decision: Does this possibility add to the beauty of the world? How can I approach this difficult situation in a way that will eventually (if not immediately) build beauty?
I can think of several ways I live this purpose already, and several ways I would like to be able to live this purpose in the future. I add to the physical beauty of the world with my writing and my art, with the way I dress modestly and carry myself with confidence in my femininity. I celebrate beauty and affirm it when I see it in other people, "You have such an amazing voice; thank you for sharing it with us" or, "You give really good hugs." I give verbal praise to the Creator when I experience natural beauty: a bright sunny sky or a majestic mountain always does it for me. I find confidence in the peace and eternal love I experience in my relationship with Christ; I find joy in the love and loyalty I share with my boyfriend and close friends; I find strength in the moments I get to spend alone, thinking and praying about questions like, What is your word? These qualities of confidence, joy and strength help me to move forward in my mission to add beauty to the world.
Ultimately though, I think the best and most important way to add to the beauty of the world is through kindness. I believe in kindness like small children believe in Santa. Now, I don't profess to be a master of it at all, but I think that kindness to oneself AND to others has true, healing, life-changing, world-altering power. And in a world that is broken and bruised by poverty, natural disasters, corruption, disease, violence, etc. we sure could use some serious healing. Healing that will eventually lead us back to celebrating the beauty rather than focusing on the pain of the world.
Gilbert's entire mission for her year of travels was, in some sense, to seek kindness. She was especially in search of kindness towards herself. After years of failed relationships and one catastrophic divorce, she set off to discover who she is on her own terms. When Depression and Loneliness finally catch up with her again in Rome, she ultimately banishes them by writing a love note to herself. "There is nothing you can ever do to lose my love" (54). Gilbert admits that she had been looking for another person to make that exact promise to her for years. Yet it is only when she is kind to and forgiving of herself does she find the one person who truly can make that promise to her. This is a big moment for Gilbert on her journey. It seems to be the first step in her healing year of self discovery. After she learns to love herself, she can go on to release herself of David, conquer her depression, control her wandering mind, and eventually fall in love with someone new.
I have also seen the healing power of kindness in my service work at Don Miller House. Ms. Sofia (name changed) is usually the residential aid on duty when I do my shift. She is a short round older woman from Trinidad who is constantly cooking and constantly laughing. She moved to the States in her teens and worked hard to put all three of her children through college. She adds to the beauty of the world more than any other person I have met. One day, I arrived at the house to see a beautiful floral arrangement on the table: Ms. Sofia made it at a class she was taking and brought it to the residents. Ms. Sofia's dinners are works of art and labors of love. She patiently tells Sherry to keep out of the small kitchen while I am doing the dishes and always asks about my family. I have volunteered at the house on nights when Ms. Sofia isn't working, and the mood at the dinner table isn't nearly the same. When Ms. Sofia is there, she lights up the room: the residents are more talkative and use friendly banter with her and with each other, no one complains and everyone thanks her for the meal. When I tell people that I work at a hospice home for people with AIDS/HIV, I usually get horrified looks and comments like, "Wow, that must be so hard." Some days, it is hard. But Ms. Sofia's kind presence somehow makes everything infinitely easier, and I can sense a significant difference when she isn't there.
Kindness towards oneself and others is a hard quality to develop. As I said before, I am no master of it, but I would like to be one day. I see my quest for a kinder spirit as the best way I can add to the beauty of the world right now. If I continue on this path, I know that I will eventually discover my vocation, or more specific purpose in life. But for now, like Gilbert, I am exploring and wandering. I am "abiding in the process" of discernment and discovery, trying as many "meals" as I can and "meditating" as much as I can; I am celebrating and adding beauty where ever and in whatever small way it is possible for me to do so.