Find Purpose in Tragedy

“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” 

– Robert Byrne, American chess master and author

It was what some might call a lucid dream – a blending of cognizance with unconsciousness. It was dark, and it seemed to me that it had gotten dark early that evening. It was summer, about 8 p.m., yet I needed headlights to drive. I was on my way to the ATM at a local mall. It seemed to grow darker as I drove. When I shut off the engine and stepped out of my vehicle, it felt like midnight – I could barely see my hand in front of my face. It was then I realized that the overhead parking lot lights were all out.

As I walked across the lot, I became aware of an unsettling fact: no one else was there, not a vehicle, not another soul. As I approached the pedestrian crosswalk, I heard an odd sound like someone pedalling a bicycle with a rattling fender and a chain desperately in need of oil.

Then, without warning, the bicycle flew past me, nearly knocking me over. I assumed the bike rider hadn’t seen me in the darkness. Still, it seemed foolhardy to be riding so quickly in the dark. The sound receded then stopped abruptly. In a few moments, it reappeared, growing louder. The rider blew past me again, even more quickly this time. Was the rider trying to hit me? I decided to return to my vehicle, but the bicycle rushed past me again as I turned.

“Hey,” I yelled, trying not to sound frightened. “Watch where you’re going!”

The rider stopped a few feet from me, dropping one leg to the ground for support. I could discern that the rider was small, a child or a woman. A car turned at a nearby intersection, and for a moment, the headlights washed over both of us. To my shock, the rider looked to be a boy about 12 years old. Fair complexion with dark, curly hair. He was dressed in a red plaid shirt with blue jeans rolled up in cuffs. On his feet were black canvas runners – the two-dollar type I had worn as a kid. It was the pitiable look on his face that most distressed me.

“Who are you?” I demanded. “What do you want?”

After a long pause, he responded. “It’s OK, kid,” he said. “You can stop being afraid now.”

Something twisted in the back of my mind. Thirty years prior, a 12-year-old boy had died in our school bathroom. The boy had been a friend. A year older than me, he always called me “kid” – teased me in a good-natured way – watched out for me on occasion. The day I found him in the bathroom, my life changed forever. His death had brought me face-to-face with my mortality, and I had run panic-stricken through the decades ever since.

I woke up from this perturbing dream ten years ago and have pondered its implications ever since. As the boy rode away, I ran after him yelling the name of my long-dead friend – pleading for an answer to the question of why: why had he died? What purpose had it served?

“So you could make a difference,” he yelled back. “Don’t disappoint me, kid!”

Events in our lives can nudge us in one direction or another. Sometimes traumatic events break us like a rack of pool balls, sending us careening in directions we never imagined. A frantic search for meaning and purpose had begun when I was 11 years old and evolved over the decades like a puzzle slowly taking form. I have found my purpose, which is to be of service to others through both the written or spoken word and by living example.

There are two fields of thought regarding purpose: one being that our purpose is genetically or divinely predestined – all we need do is discover it. The other is that our purpose is what we choose it be, or as Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversations with God series of books, declares, “Your purpose is not written on a park bench somewhere.” Which of these is correct probably isn’t relevant. What matters isn’t so much the source of your purpose, but your awareness of purpose.

I believe you can sense when you’re on purpose. It just feels right. Whatever fires your passion and enthusiasm, whatever makes you feel alive and relevant reveals your purpose. It seems to me, the better your self-esteem and the greater your self-awareness, the more able and willing you are to consider living a life of purpose – a life that truly makes a difference.

I lived in fear for many years, desperately trying to find my way out of the maze. As a result, I pondered things more deeply, listened more intently, devoured books and wrote volumes in my journal, all while seeking understanding. I didn’t realize at the time that all of those actions were moving me toward my life’s purpose. Was it predestined? Did my friend’s death happen for a reason, or is that only an interpretation – my mind seeking meaning? Perhaps we each have a role to play in others’ lives, and that role is different for each person we encounter.

Over the years, I have formulated a series of simple questions that have helped me clarify my purpose. Perhaps, they’ll help you, too. What gives me energy? What takes it away? What makes me happy? What makes me sad? Is it true? What would I do if I weren’t afraid?

For me, a sense of purpose or philosophy of meaningful living is best summed up by the late German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler, who wrote, “This is our purpose: to make as meaningful as possible this life that has been bestowed upon us, to live in such a way that we may be proud of ourselves, to act in such a way that some part of us lives on.

It was as though my friend’s death stripped away my innocence and along with it my sense of self. Reclaiming my life has allowed me to help others do the same.

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