by David Ruffin
“So...what do you want to do with your life???”
There was a time when this question haunted me like an existential crisis. Some might call it being in my twenties, but I certainly didn’t feel that such pain was just “to be expected.”
I remember pouring over inspirational books. I found few answers, but I did find friends: Parker Palmer assured me that feelings of depression were not only normal but a gift that could lead me deeper and help “let my life speak.” Kahlil Gibran reframed my present pain as something that was carving space for future joy. Mary Oliver proclaimed her gospel: “You do not have to be good.” And Rainer Maria Rilke urged patience “with everything unresolved in (my) heart...to love the questions themselves.” Most importantly, I learned I had good company in struggling to find my way.
Encouraged by these connections, my creative energy began to return and soon I was on the move—zigging and zagging, to be sure, but following my heart. In time, I was New York City–bound, following my dream of legal temping...I mean, acting. But the legal temping, along with countless early mornings, shivering in lines for theater auditions (that were already cast), was living the dream. I was following my passion and, in time, I began finding work.
Still, was it my purpose?
I remember my deep recognition watching the musical "Avenue Q" as Princeton, the protagonist puppet, opened the drama with the question of questions: “What do you do with a B.A. in English?”
Princeton continues, “Everyone else has a purpose, so what’s mine? ...Gotta find out, don’t wanna wait. Got to make sure that my life will be great...Got to find me.”
Fast forward—I was on the Fiftieth Anniversary European Tour of West Side Story and I was Tony! It was the pinnacle of my career in a role that felt meant for me. But I was struggling. We were playing Vienna, with Paris around the corner, and I was dogged by a sinus infection, struggling with the famous high notes of “Maria,” and fearing the consequences. Soon they came: a ticket back home.
I was devastated. I’d overcome depression, followed my passion, and put in my time. I had practically felt the glow of my parents’ pride as I imagined them watching me on stage at Le Chatelet. But it wouldn’t be.
I experienced love anyway.
A dear friend who’d traveled to see me holding my hand,
Cast mates’ tears transforming my own,
Vienna’s autumn leaves enveloping me in a golden glow,
My parents’ even greater pride in my courage, facing this loss . . .Words penned in a journal entry—“I am called to ministry.”
I used to think that finding my purpose meant finding a tiny intersection point between my passion and the world’s need. Then I took faith that the world needed passionate people—as Howard Thurman says, “people who have come alive.”
But the greatest learning has come from feeling my fears, my losses, my dreams, and even my quest to “find me,” transformed through the experience of finding and feeling we. Discovering my identity as one who is loved and loves passionately—this has been to come alive.
What do I want to do with my life?...Embrace it.