Recently, I’ve been noticing that a lot of people around me have been expressing anxiety about the future, about determining their purpose in life, or figuring out “what it all means”, both as activists and as individuals. I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but these are actually not concerns that I relate to. I feel very confident about my purpose, and I hope that maybe this essay will be useful to you if you are searching for meaning within your own life.
The best advice I can give is that life happens one moment at a time and it does not necessarily follow a straight path. Instead of fighting this reality by deciding on what you want when you’re young and trying to coerce your life into traveling a course of your own design, it helps to set up camp right where you are on the side of the road and to try to make it as beautiful as possible. Look for opportunities in your surroundings to make your camp a better place. Is there suffering around you? Spend as much time as you can dedicating yourself to serving those who are suffering. Service looks different for different people. Some people have ample physical strength and energy and are excellent at tasks like building, repairing, and moving things for people whose bodies are weakened by illness or exhaustion. Others have excellent emotional skills and can sit with distraught friends, family, neighbors, or even strangers and offer words of compassion and understanding. Still others have excellent thinking and processing skills and can assist others in tasks like research, policy development, computer repair, or managing finances. These are just a few examples. Skills and talents are infinite in their manifestations and applications.
Your acts of service will likely lead you to new places where you will find new opportunities. You’ll set up new camps and meet new people. Sometimes the people you serve will betray you or you’ll find out that you’ve been misled about their level of need. Frankly, it will hurt, and it might be embarrassing, but their mistakes are irrelevant to who you are and what you have to give. They are the ones who will lay awake at night with their guilt, even if they say they don’t care about what they did to you, even if they call you a sucker, even if they exploit you and steal from you, even if they mock you and call you gullible and pathetic. These are all things that have happened to me. Those people have doors closing all around them while more doors open for me every day. I haven’t let it harden my heart, because that would just be a way of punishing myself and the people who need me.
I’m lucky to have grown up watching my parents consistently dedicating themselves to the service of others. For as long as I can remember, my mom has never been without at least one volunteer project in her life. I watched her care for my great-grandmother as she neared the end of her life. I watched her volunteer at my elementary school to tutor ESL students. I’ve watched her organize clothing exchanges and food drives. She also spends a tremendous amount of time offering spiritual guidance to people who share her faith. I watched my dad spend a whole year helping a member of our extended family build a house when I was a teenager. He went over to pitch in after he got home from work just about every day. This is to say nothing of the things that they have done for me, which are too numerous to even think about recounting. I am also lucky to have married into a family who clearly shares the same values. My mother-in-law, father-in-law, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law, in just a few short years, have also touched my life with incredible kindness and generosity more times than I can count. Parents take note: never underestimate the capacity for goodness you can instill in your children just by being a good role model.
If you feel unsure about your place in the world, think about what you have to bring to the table, and the acts of goodness and service you already provide to the people around you. You might be surprised to realize that you already do so many things that you should feel proud of, but you haven’t taken the time to relish the satisfaction that accompanies doing good works. On the flipside, you might realize that you have been missing opportunities to serve and you have been drawing your energy inward. It’s also possible that you need this time in your life to take care of yourself and heal from your own wounds so that you can bring more to the table in the future. Only you can decide whether or not that is the case.
Over the past several months, I have been struggling hard with chronic illness that is sometimes completely debilitating. I’ve had to learn to listen to my body when it is pleading for rest. I’ve also had to learn ways to give and serve even when I am in pain, even when I think that the person I am serving already has more than I do, even when things feel dark and unfair. Giving helps me forget about the things I can’t fix in my own life while I focus on burdens that I can shoulder for others instead. It reminds me of my power when I feel powerless. It helps me connect with other people when I feel lonely. It shows me that no one has a perfect life when I am feeling jealous or resentful.
Activist work has many parallels with interpersonal giving if you’re doing it well. It’s about seeing needs and working to meet them, just for the sake of making things better. You don’t need to know exactly how change will take shape in the long term in order to contribute little bits and pieces every day. When we march for causes, or write essays, or share information, or circulate petitions, it’s about more than the end goal. Fighting misogyny, racism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, and cissexism in everyday life is still worth it even if we never see our dreams of justice come to fruition. Witnessing solidarity is a small but important comfort for the oppressed. It helps us all remember that alongside the hate and ugliness in the world, there is also love and respect.
Another parallel is that with both activism and interpersonal giving, it’s important to check your ego at the door. Nothing cheapens a good deed faster than hearing the doer bragging about what they have done or portraying themselves as a hero. If you feel the need for external rewards and recognition, you are likely not giving with your whole heart. Sometimes the people whose lives you touch will spread the word on your behalf, but it’s not necessary. When you give of yourself completely and without reservation, rewards will generate automatically: you’ll sharpen your skills, deepen your friendships, and grow your sense of compassion. What’s even better: you’ll never have to wonder what your purpose is ever again and you’ll never have to look back on your life and feel like your time was wasted.
Throughout your life you will likely move, change careers, take on new projects, and watch your surroundings shift in ways that you had never anticipated. None of those things are necessarily central to who you are, what you can accomplish, what you have to give to the world, or how happy you will be. No matter what is happening around you, if you devote yourself to kindness and service, you will always have something to feel happy about. No matter where you are, you will meet people who need things that you are able to give. When they ask for your support, say yes. Trust me on this one. It’s worth it.