“We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
– Joseph Campbell
It’s easy to point to great inventors, world leaders, writers, preachers, and leaders of social and environmental initiatives and say those people probably know who they are and why they’re living in the world.
We may be wrong about that because we don’t know their stories inside an out. These people inspire us, though, showing us–among other things–what a person can do through perseverance, a willingness to fight against their challenges, and to have the strength of will and strength of purpose to reach their goals.
The rest of us can get discouraged when we read biographies or news stories about famous people who accomplished great things that have made the world a better place. How, we wonder, can we live up to that? I don’t think we’re supposed to live up to that. As Joseph Campbell would say, they were following their own paths. We have our own paths and, more often than not, those paths don’t involve being famous and ending up in the history books.
Some people say they are here to live ethical lives, to be loving and compassionate spouses and friends, to do an honest day’s work while interacting with customers and colleagues out of kindness and fairness, to bring up their children with sound values, and to take part in a churches and/or secular groups that address important causes in the community and the world. Such people vitalize the world in ways they may never know when you think of the thousands of interactions and influences they have with others during the course of a lifetime.
What we’re drawn to
Perhaps many of us discover who we are and subsequently why we’re here by looking at the causes, books, issues, subjects, belief systems and people we’re continually drawn to. Others get a strong hint when they enter college and suddenly find a subject fascinating or when they get a job and inadvertently take a company training course that leads their career in ways they never suspected on the first day of work. We find ourselves drawn to certain parts of the country or the world, possibly for what may initially seem to be the most flippant of reasons, only to find new lives there that suddenly define who we are and why we’re here.
While many people can inspire us teach us and show us (by example) what a lifetime might look like, only we can ultimately answer the question “Who am I?” Discovering that answer is often a frustrating and a lonely journey. Sometimes negative experiences get in the way of our goals and then–in time–we learn that who we are is a person who can live with adversity without losing their faith in themselves while finding new ways to define why they are here.
Do we plan our lives before we’re born?
Personally, I believe that before we are born, we know who we want to be and why we want to be here. If that’s the case, then we’ll be drawn to the kinds of people, places and things that facilitate our needs. I don’t believe in coincidences or luck or fate, so even if we don’t have a “life plan” before we are born, I think that we will develop one while we’re here as one thing leads to another. Yes, that often looks like a twisting and haphazard path until one reaches old age, looks back on it, and sees that behind all the seeming chaos of it, there was a central focus toward being who they became.
Being open to spontaneity
People used to say “go with the flow.” I don’t think that applies to mob action, acting like sheep or lemmings, or taking the easy way out. I think it means, as Joseph Campbell put it, following our bliss and doing what enlivens us and enriches us and transforms us. One has to be open to that flow to jump into it and see where it leads; we can’t consciously plan upcoming “coincidences,” “chance meetings,” or “lucky encounters with other people” in advance. We can expect them and be open toward spontaneously embracing those moments when they occur.
“Who Am I and Why Am I Here?” is usually an evolving discovery. Most of us don’t necessarily know that in high school or college or our first full-time job. Life will, I think, help us figure it out.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the hero’s journey novel “The Sun Singer” and the heroine’s journey novel “Sarabande.”