I sometimes ask students in my classes what they are called to be. Sometimes I ask them to complete this sentence, one posed some time ago to incoming students at New York University: I am here to _______________________. Try the experiment yourself. It’s not as easy as it first seems.
Not long ago, a student turned the tables on me and asked me to complete the same sentence. My response was not unlike that of Viktor Frankel whose book Man’s Search for Meaning is one I use in ethics classics. “I am here to help people figure out why they are here.” I wish I had thought of this by myself, but now it only matters to me that the response came so easily and naturally, as if to say: Why, of course, this is why I am here on earth–to be a learner and teacher.
I wouldn’t have been so clear about my purpose until later in my life, although my wife said to me I was always teaching, no matter what I did for a job. Perhaps she is right because I know deep down when I am in a classroom that here is where I was born to be, doing what I was intended to do. It took me a number of false starts and turns to realize this, but at least I can say now I am on the right track.
Students in my classes often discuss the differences between having a job and having a calling. They do so with a certain sadness if they have a job but not a calling, but also with the awareness that having a job these days to pay the rent and food bills is important by itself. But if pressed about what they really want to be and do (their calling), many name something other than their current jobs, such as wanting to be a writer, a teacher, a pilot, a mechanic, a counselor, etc. I often suggest it is never too late to follow their dreams. But the fact is that those whose jobs and callings match seem to be the most fulfilled. We are, after all, not just human doings but also human beings.
The philosopher Aristotle said the purpose of a human being was to be all that she or he was capable of being, call that excellence of character (or the name of this blog, Arete). None of us ever reach that final state of being. Life is a journey, after all, but if we have a clear sense of our essential goal to fulfill our reason for being, we are more happy. And happiness is a by product of seeking to reach that goal. It is life with purpose and meaning, our meaning wrestled from life itself.
So we are here, each one of us, to be the best we can be, to reach our full potential. If you think about it, that might be a goal for the entire human race–to be the best we can be as a species.