I’ve spent my years fascinated and captivated by purpose and how it drives people to achieve incredible things while feeling truly fulfilled in life. Several years ago I had a very vivid dream that I recall to this day. I thought I’d relay it…
I dreamt about a man, short and middle-aged, balding. Think Danny DeVito without the accent or comedic charm. By all accounts he was fairly dull and unexceptional. He had a pretty ordinary job where he never really climbed the ranks or made any impact, lived in an ordinary apartment and barely raised an eyebrow wherever he went. Overlooked and never truly considered someone exceptional, he bore a deep, intense frustration within him. He’d spent all of five decades and then some on this planet, day after day, hoping and desperately seeking a reason to exist, a purpose for being here. From his youngest days he just wanted to know why he was here, what he was meant to do to avoid living a life devoid of purpose and meaning. Yet he never discovered some remarkable talent that he could pour himself into and proudly proclaim his association with, something that resonated within him and made him feel that this would fulfill him. He found himself with more questions than answers and so he spent his days, always questioning, never finding an answer that brought the mulling questions to an end.
One thing made him different, although this one thing went either entirely unnoticed or felt like simply an annoying habit, it seemed. We all know very young children incessantly ask “Why?” as they discover and seek to understand the world around them. With this man, that urge to ask why was unyielding and never faded as he grew older. As a child, he’d ask his teachers why a mathematical problem had to be solved in just the way they specified…why not another way? He’d trouble the shopkeeper about why he arranged his goods in same banausic way he always did. As he grew older he almost unfailingly felt the urge to listen to people or watch them in their day to day lives and ask them why they did things the way they did. Never able to offer a suggestion or alternative, never seeming to contribute to a conversation or offer anything to better a situation. All he could do was ask why, without ever knowing why he was so compelled to do so.
He went through his days in this unexceptional fashion, until one fateful morning when he collapsed on a pavement while on the way to work. He lay there, sprawled out on the tarmac, clutching his chest and desperately gasping for air as pedestrians and cars carried on moving around him, oblivious to his panic as his world closed in on him and his vision faded. He reopened his eyes and found himself in a hall, cast entirely in white and almost luminous. He felt a presence behind him, turned around and in that very moment, feeling the power of the presence with him, he realized he had died. He cried out, a huge sense of loss and defeat overwhelming him. Year upon year was spent trying so hard to find a purpose so that he could live a life of significance, and now that chance was gone and here he was, with nothing to show for it.
“Why are you so sad?”, he was asked.
“I failed. I…tried so hard…I tried everything to just find out why I was even alive, to be of use to someone, anyone. And now I’m here. I’m so sorry. I failed.”
Instead of the judgment he was sure he’d feel in full force, he felt a warmth, and then, a smile. Almost as though this incredible presence was shaking His head, as one would to a child who sheepishly admitted to having done something wrong.
“Failed? No. You did everything exactly as you were supposed to. You fulfilled your purpose.”
The man was stunned.
“What…how? I spent my whole life doing nothing exceptional, being nobody exceptional. How could I possibly have done what I was meant to?”
In that moment he was shown glimpses of his life, from his earliest years all the way through to his last days.
“Do you remember that teacher you asked about the math problem and why it couldn’t be solved another way?”
“Yes…He shot me down and told me to do things the way I’m told and not ask questions.”
“Well, that man remembered you for years after you stood up and asked him that question. Thanks to you, he began to ask himself that same question, and he realized there is no good reason why it can’t or shouldn’t be done another way. It led him to wondering why he didn’t challenge himself in other aspects of his life as well. Finally he left his teaching career and became a well-respected and very passionate man who wrote several papers and taught many others to look beyond convention.”
The man was stunned. He only ever thought of that moment as another point in his life where he was rejected for questioning something.
“How about the shopkeeper you visited each afternoon? Remember how you asked him why he always arranged his goods in just that same way? He realized he’d become so set in his ways that everything stagnated in his life, not just his store’s sales. What you said sunk in, he took all of that to heart and decided to try things in a different way. Thanks to you his life changed as well.”
The man shook his head, stunned. He was shown many more moments from his life, each time with that same distinct, recurrence of him asking why and how it changed some part of the lives of those he spoke to.
“Remember this? That one night at that party where you felt like such an outcast? Remember standing there, listening to this scientist talking, telling everyone how he’s struggling to find a solution for the research he’d invested years and countless hours working on? How he felt he was so very close to finding the answer but somehow it kept eluding him?”
The man nodded slowly.
“Do you remember what you said to him?”
The man recalled that night. Everyone was nodding quietly as this highly educated scientist was explaining his life’s work, not really knowing what to say. Then he, in a moment of inexplicable compulsion, blurted out the only words he ever managed to find. Again, relative what the scientist had said, his response was along the lines of, ‘But why are you doing it like this? Why does it have to be done this way?’ He felt like a complete idiot as total silence descended upon the circle of people, moments after the words left his mouth. Fumbling with his hands in and out of his jacket pockets, he hung his head and escaped the crowd, and went back to his apartment. He spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling, beating himself up about being such a failure.
“You never knew this, but your words were exactly what that man needed to hear. He went home that night and couldn’t get what you said out of his head. Those simple two questions you asked him gave him a renewed perspective on his problem and things fell into place that he never thought of before. He got back to work on his project and with time, discovered the solution to what he’d been working on for years. I’ll let you in on a secret. Some time after your life was over on earth, the research he was doing contributed to helping to cure cancer.”
By this stage the man felt completely overwhelmed.
“But I’m nobody. I…only ever asked questions.”, he replied, stuttering.
“Your purpose was to ask the questions that would change the way people thought about problems in their lives. Everyone has a purpose. It’s just that not everyone can know what that purpose is.
Do you know that if I ever told you what your purpose was in your life, you’d have tried to change everything? You would have tried so hard to find the right questions to ask at the right time, to the right people, that you would have entirely missed asking the right people at the right time.”
The man stood there, absolutely speechless.
“Purpose isn’t something you seek and have to find. It’s something you always have. Sometimes people fulfill their purpose just by living and expressing themselves sincerely. Not everyone has a purpose that is immediately visible to others or one that makes them known or loved on earth, but sometimes the most powerful purpose comes in the whispers of voices people can’t forget. Or, in your case, the questions.”