The Call of Purpose

Apr 5 / Witty Sandle
“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of others…” - Albert Einstein[1]

Purpose is the engine room of our vocations – whether they are our daily calls to faithful living or particular summons which propel us into our tomorrows. Without purpose, we are adrift.

This reality is captured in a comedy series called “After Life,”[2] set in a small English town. Dark humor sits alongside deeply poignant moments as we follow the story of the central character, Tony, played by the actor, Ricky Gervaise. Tony struggles to cope with the death of his wife from cancer, each day being a fight with despair. The show tackles big life themes including loss, human connection and purpose. These thrust Tony and the motley crew of characters who surround him, towards various forms of existential questioning. They want answers to the “whys” that surface from deep within them and march across the landscapes of their lives.

Why should I bother?

What’s the point?

Who cares?

Does anything I do matter or make a difference?

The culprit beneath many of these questions is a lack of purpose, leading to an aimless wandering. Any of us can find ourselves in this difficult terrain of confusion and apprehension, propelled by any number of circumstances. A job loss, a divorce, an empty nest, retirement or bereavement to name a few.

My day job is working with undergraduate students and many of them struggle as they approach graduation. They are transitioning to a world outside university life, where the demands and structures of full-time study no longer tether them to solid ground. Questions of identity arise and in the absence of clear plans, and sometimes, even in the midst of well-thought out next steps, anxieties come to the fore.

In uncertain times - and especially now, in the midst of a global pandemic with its resultant economic downturns - it is hard for them, as it can be for all of us, to imagine a future that carries the promise of a meaningful life. This angst, it seems, is a perennial issue that does not abate with age.

Every season ushers in similar questions to those above, with only the precise circumstances being different. Every major change can be a precursor to a time where purpose, it seems, has left the house.

How can purpose be enticed to take up residence once more in our lives?

In season 2 of “After Life,” episode 4, there is a scene where Tony meets with Paul, the owner of the newspaper for which he and his colleagues work. The paper is making a loss and Paul, a retired businessman, has announced that he is selling. Tony makes it his mission to save the paper for his colleagues and this breathes life back into the tiredness and attendant lethargy that is his grief.

Purpose returns.

“Has anyone asked you not to close the paper and sell the building?” Tony asks Paul. He follows up with, “how much will you make from selling it?” The reply is “half a million.” It’s a lot of money but Tony is undeterred. “What will you do with that?” Paul’s nonchalant shrug and response, “a new car maybe...I don’t know, potter around a bit,” reveals that he doesn’t have a satisfying answer. He concedes there is little he needs and tellingly adds, “except perhaps the company of a nice lady.”

Paul is directionless and companionless, as is Tony. This is a meeting of two lonely people who are drifting through life except Tony, at least for a little while, has found something in which to invest. He takes his eyes off his own suffering and turns his gaze towards that of his colleagues. His heartfelt pitch succeeds, and the retiree is reinvigorated. “It might be nice to have a challenge again,” he smiles, as he thinks about turning around the fortunes of the newspaper. Purpose returns.

One definition of purpose states, “Purpose is a stable and generalised intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.” [3].

We long to do things that carry significance. In spiritual direction-like relationships we can find ourselves accompanied into meaning-making, pondering our vocational calls. As we rehearse our stories, the Holy Spirit meets our restlessness with gentle nudges, reminding us about what matters. We are reminded of our core identity as the beloved of God, and from that place of acceptance, our purpose flows. Slowly, the contours of our lives are reformed as we become aware of the simple ways in which we are needed and in turn, need others.

In every episode of “After Dark,” Tony gets out of bed because he has a dog that was adored by his wife. The dog must be fed and walked. This responsibility, borne of a deep love for his wife keeps Tony going despite his abject grief, and reminds him that the ordinary, mundane things matter. The dog gives Tony a purpose every single day.

Purpose keeps us animated and alive, even when the storms of life threaten to overwhelm us. Purpose gives us direction when we are lost in our fogs of uncertainty. Purpose helps us name what is important to us and tells us that we matter and so do our fellow image-bearers of the divine.

Purpose gives us hope.

1 Albert Einstein and others, Living Philosophies. (Cleveland, World publishing co.1941).
2 "After Life" is a British gritty comedy containing crudity and bad language. The US rating is TV-MA
3 William Damon, The Path to Purpose. How Young People Find Their Calling in Life,” (New York: Free Press, 2008), 33.

Witty Sandle
Witty works as the Career and Vocational counsellor at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, combining her professional career development background with her spiritual direction skillset. She graduated from Portland Seminary in 2019 with a Masters in Spiritual Formation. Witty is deeply interested in questions of vocation and significance. She describes her own vocation as seeking to be an attentive presence, creating safe spaces where others can discover all they are called to be.