I first “met” Joseph last year when I was sourcing for writers to write in for the soon-to-be-released City Issue of Klorofyl. I use the term “met” loosely. We met on Twitter, and even though we’ve been in correspondence for a while, we’re yet to meet in person.
Joseph is a poet. There aren’t a lot of poets whose work I understand and appreciate, but I’m a big fan of his. His poems are uncommonly fluid and lucid, and I find them beautiful. I can’t tell you how pleased I was that he agreed to write in for this series and I recommend you stop by his blog when you’re done here.
“Something’s missing,” John Mayer wrote, “and I don’t know what it is.” Something is missing. Something essential. Something necessary to making a difference in the world. And most are afraid to find out what it is. Why is this? Why do we feel this void within? We long for what we can’t have and inevitably grow disillusioned. Why should it come as a surprise? We keep searching for meaning and ultimately we end up feeling tired, worn out, and frustrated.
I have come to loath the overuse of such phrases like “finding yourself” and “discovering your purpose.” There’s something ultimately insincere and unfulfilling about the promise of a “better you” that doesn’t involve pain and sacrifice.
The real road of meaning is dirty and full of jagged rocks, even pieces of glass. It’s long and difficult, and that’s how we would prefer it. Jesus called this “the road to life that was so narrow few actually found it.” John Bunyan depicts this as an epic struggle in which the hero must fight his way through opposition into paradise. Emily Dickinson wrote about it in a poem: “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed / To comprehend nectar / Requires sorest need.”
Despite the fact that the self-help section at our bookstores taunts us with half-truths and false hopes, we keep searching. We want purpose. We long for it. Every day, we’re looking for meaning. You can see it in people’s eyes at the mall, in the products we buy and never use, in the books on our shelves, in the clothes that we buy that somehow never make us look how we dreamed they would.
But nothing works till you encounter the world’s deep need, till you have a revelation of how you can be part of something greater than the consumerist pursuit of self.
And then, it all changes. The result is being “broken.”
I first got broken in a “backward” town called Obayantor in Edo state. Our NGO went there to assess the area and attempt to quench the thirst of its inhabitants. I wept as I saw hungry children looking so despondent, hopeless and desperate; you could sense that they had no idea of a “future.” The worst thing you can take away from a child is hope. I was wrecked by a world that I had never known—a world that was becoming real for the first time to me.
It’s the unfamiliar that calls us to be more than we could ever be on our own. And in that period of discomfort, we learn something about life—real life—that we didn’t know before. Something cataclysmic or maybe even gradual happens. There is a nagging feeling in our souls that something’s been wrong with the world for a while, and when this moment of breaking happens, the feeling is no longer bearable. You no longer “fit” into the old world. You’ve seen too much, heard too many things, and you can’t go back to ordinary living.
I am writing this not to give you answers. I just want to ask: What if there’s more to the meaning of life than your own story? What if you have a crucial part to play in an overarching narrative? This isn’t just altruism or compassion or charity ; it’s a shot at living the lives that we were meant to live, that we’re scared to live, that the world needs us to live. And that we need us to live.
Random acts of service to the needy around you are great way to start. You don’t have to work for the Red Cross to make a difference. Cure the “desert places” in your street, your community. Help the homeless man around that street corner.
Make this a lifestyle. You know this. I know it. It’s time. It’s time to act.
Joseph E. Parker