The paper in front of me carried the distinctive teal lines used in every classroom. I stared at the empty paper, wondering what I should write, but looked at the question scrawled across the green chalkboard once more. Glancing at my peer’s papers, I saw words and pictures scribbled with the oversized №2 pencils we each used. None of them held the answer I was looking for.
Before time was up, the muse of inspiration struck and I grinned ear to ear and began scribbling. The picture was one I’d drawn a thousand times, while often daydreaming about the day it would happen. When the teacher came around to gather our papers, she frowned initially, then smiled.
“Those are some pretty big shoes to fill.”
I grinned in response, certain I could handle the pressure.
Later in the afternoon, the pictures and words made their way onto the walls. Above each depiction now hung what was once plastered on the chalkboard — “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
Most kids had pictures of doctors, firefighters, teachers, or musicians. On my picture stood a man with an “S” on his chest and a red cape with the word “Superman” scrawled in a child’s hand.
To me, the notion wasn’t unrealistic, because I was convinced superpowers and heroes existed. I would envision the moment I’d get x-ray vision, laser eyes, and super breath. I also worried they’d manifest during school, and I’d discover my latent gifts by sneezing and blowing up my classroom.
But my “powers” never showed, so I took matters into my own hands and tried to force them to manifest. This began a long and painful journey, culminating with multiple attempts to fly by jumping off the roof of my house. I soon discovered Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity applied to me as they did the rest of humanity. Perhaps I wasn’t destined to don the cape and shield and soon figured my life’s mission would have to be something else — like becoming Spiderman.
My four-year-old daughter believes she has powers. Like Elsa from the Disney movie, Frozen, she’ll extend her hand, make a whoosh noise with her mouth, and try to have ice appear, only to grow frustrated when ice shards don’t appear. She also believes she can turn red stop lights green by making the same gesture. After watching Superhero Girls on Netflix, she believes her life mission is to combat “the bad guys” and “save the world.” It’s cute and I love pretending along, not wanting to crush her imagination with reality.
Watching her behavior — and that of other kids — I wonder what it is inside the human soul that loves a good mission? All kid’s show seems to revolve around world saving missions, as do our adult themed favorites. We love stories about heroic quests, whether in entertainment, literature, or just about any medium in between. Isn’t it interesting that before we destroy our kids’ joy, love, and belief in world saving missions and replace it with cynicism, every grade school kid wants to pick a profession that has something to do with saving the world or helping people? Ask any young child what they want to be when they grow up and you can see this played out. You never hear, “Well, I hope I’m working in an office somewhere, pushing papers, and spending my life in a cubicle.” Instead, children always visualize their future in terms of a mission, and dwelling about the day they’ll grow old enough for it to happen brings them great joy. Hell, just ask my daughter about the day when she’ll get her powers to save the world and you’ll be a captive audience for a good thirty minutes.
In today’s online and increasingly connected environment, we often see the call to change the world. We want to make impact for good, because we ultimately crave mission to give us purpose. The data on this very topic doesn’t lie either. In a report from 2018, nine out of ten people stated they would take a lower-paying job if it provided a sense of purpose. They also said “they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful.”
The fix seems simple and has been purported in the forms of catchy sayings like “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” But as we’ve seen, more and more people feel unfulfilled in their lives and work. Many have stated they lack purpose, which has led to alarming rates in mental health issues, especially as the pandemic stripped many people of options other than to stay at home. But there’s also another reason we can become unfulfilled, lack joy, and find purpose. More than ever, we’ve become a society hell-bent on our individual happiness.
In modernity, there’s no higher calling than individual happiness. As long as it doesn’t hurt someone, we rationalize that our happiness supersedes everything else. But individual happiness always has roots in selfishness, which will destroy a mission. That statement may sound suspect, but consider: if there’s no higher cause than our happiness, then there’s nothing to deny our happiness for. If there’s no higher cause than personal fulfillment, then there’s nothing to die for, let alone live for. Thus, if anything impedes our happiness, then mission, purpose, and meaning can easily be abandoned.
In one of the most memorable scenes from the Rambo movie franchise, John Rambo is holed up and surrounded after getting into a violent altercation with police. To bring an end to Rambo’s siege, the police fly in his former military officer to convince him to surrender. When they meet, Rambo delivers his famous “Nothing is over!” speech and concludes with the following:
”Back there, I could fly a gunship. I could drive a tank. I was in charge of million dollar equipment! Back here, I can’t even hold a job parking cars! I can’t — I just — Oh, my God. Where is everybody? Oh, God. I had a friend… was Danforth. I had all these guys, man. Back there, I had all these guys who were my friends. ’Cause back here… there’s nothing.”
In this sad, but poetic display we can observe the effects of once having a mission — and friends alongside you on the mission — only to lose it. Rambo spirals and is forced to confront the reality of his poor mental health. Say what you will about the franchise, but every time John Rambo gets back in on the action, he’s on a mission to save people (albeit in a gory manner). Throughout each iteration, he’s forced to the brink and in death-defying situations using his life in service of saving others. Multiple times he denies happiness to find meaning by helping others.
Many of the people I meet who feel they lack purpose or direction are unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? But when I dig into why that is, most every single one lacks a life mission. The mistake is to believe it has to be some Superman-level stuff, much like my 8-year-old self, but the solution is far easier than that. Each of us has talents and abilities that come naturally, whether in business, writing, art, or music. To hoard those abilities and never use them to affect the world is selfish. More often than not, it’s our pride and fear that keeps us from putting them to good use in service of others. Comfort and happiness become king, when — where we to deny those for a season — we might just find a greater joy.
In one of his articles about discovering your life’s purpose, author Mark Manson asks: “What makes you forget to eat and poop?” Meaning, what activities get you so entranced that you forget to eat or use the bathroom? For me, that’s art — writing, designing, and speaking. Sometimes, I’ll have to pee so badly, that I’ll ignore the urge because I want to get the flow of sentences down on paper. Whether anyone reads my work is irrelevant. Sure, it sucks when people don’t, but that’s not why I started writing. I loved the craft and now see it as a way to inspire others. I hope that others find my words insightful or healing, because the end goal is to serve others, which puts me directly on a mission.
You, too, have unique gifts, and you can serve the world with them. However, you must fight back against the fear and pride that often keeps us stuck. Your mind will tell you it’s easier not to sacrifice and deny your happiness for a season because watching Netflix and amusing yourself to death is better. But it’s a lie and you know it. Instead, there’s a great wide world out there just waiting for your touch. It doesn’t have to be spectacular, and most all of us won’t even be remembered by our great grandchildren. But each day you draw breath is a gift. Each day you can live on purpose.
Take the risk, find your mission, and discover joy.
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.
— Rabindranath Tagore
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