A year ago a close friend was lamenting the suicide of her 16-year-old nephew. In his crushing despair, the boy had hanged himself. “What a waste”, my friend said. “When my time comes, I hope that my death isn’t in vain.”

No one among us was ever meant to experience a merely commonplace life. Just getting by is not being alive — it is poverty.

I agree it is difficult to identify what we’re intended to do. But I do know in my bones that every living thing needs a sense of purpose or it cannot survive.

I am reminded of some Native American cultures where an elder who has been identified as someone beyond their purpose simply wills themselves to die. And when I worked for the railroad many years ago, I recall countless older engineers who simply lived for their work. But, one after another, when they were forced into retirement at 65, within a week or two of leaving their service, these perfectly healthy men were dead.

For human beings, purpose is everything.

And just making money, kids, is not a purpose and has precious little to do with the quality of any life. I laugh at the bumper stickers that read, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Just try taking those toys with you or cashing them in for a family that loves you.

Monetary gain is the ideal deceiver of a person’s true worth. The sticker should read: “Whoever dies with the most toys is still dead.”

So what’s the secret? How do we discover our true north? Well, ask yourself this one question: “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?”

When you finally arrive at an answer that makes sense of this question, then you will have found your life’s purpose.

While that discovery is no easy feat, of course, that new information becomes your jumping off point to greater things. Ralph Waldo Emerson held that, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Examining the fears that hold us back is key to identifying our purpose. Personally I have known the pain of loss. Without that knowledge I’d have no compassion for others.

All of us have a place in history. Whatever happens to even the smallest among us becomes a resource. Our humiliations, misfortunes, losses and gains — these are our contributions to a history of mankind.

When people tell me they’re unhappy, my first reaction is that only people with no purpose are unhappy.

I contend that what I am living for and what I would die for are really the same question. When I reach the end of my days and look back, I will know if my life had purpose by one simple measurement — whether I have lived in despair or not. If I have followed my heart, then I trust that I will have found and fulfilled a purpose. Hopefully a noteworthy one.

The final measure of a person’s sense of purpose hasn’t so much to do with where we are but rather in what direction we are headed. One of my favorite definitions of devotion is this: Love is not two people looking into each other’s eyes. It is two people traveling in the same direction.

That communal sense of forward momentum holds in itself a glorious sense of purpose. If we are only meant to just be there for one other person — for some that is purpose enough. I know personally many folks who are worth it.

Passion is your finest barometer for your purpose. Whatever it is in this life that excites you to do your best work, let it lead you to your purpose.

My friend’s lament that her nephew may have died in vain made me wonder about the absence of purpose in his life.

For me the greater sin would be to have lived in vain.







When she was four and a half I took my daughter to her first movie in a theater. Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound”. Five minutes into the film the momma fox is hiding her pup in the forest to protect him. Upon hearing the approach of hunters, she dashes off to lead them away from her little one.

The cute, confused face of the baby fox.

A distant gunshot.

And silence.

Uh oh….

Courtney looked up at me, unblinking. “What happened to the mommy, Daddy?”

Do I lie? God, look at that little face. I want her to be able to trust me. No, I think she can take it. She’ll understand. Be honest — gentle, but honest.

“She…… died, honey.”


There was no consoling her and we had to leave. So much for candor.

The disappearance of a dear one from our life will never be a feat of ease for those who must reckon with it. About six months later we found a dead finch in the yard and she started asking me about death.

“Am I going to die someday?”

“Every living thing has a beginning, a time to be, and an end. It happens to everyone, sweetheart.”

“Are you going to die someday?”

Do I break her heart again? Those adorable eyes…..


Long thoughtful look at my face. Then finally, “Where will you go when you die?”

“Well, I’m kinda hoping I’ll get to go to heaven.”

“Where’s heaven?”

And that kicked it all off. I thought she would have been satisfied with a stock Sunday school answer. But she had to take it further and I was suddenly on unsteady turf.

At this point in my life I hadn’t really warmed to any kind of faith and her question got me thinking. There she was with those precious, searching eyes, waiting for an answer. Barely five years old and so curious about the big issues. When I was five I was lucky if I could figure out how the bathroom doorknob worked.

But still, that’s the eternal question, isn’t it — Where do we go? The answer I finally gave her is the answer I still hold to today.

When my mother passed away two years ago, I kept hearing my daughter’s question returning from 21 years before — “Where’s heaven?” For weeks after the funeral I could only think of all the wonderful things my mother had been to me — a personable, kind, morally decent, insightful, generous and witty woman who read aloud to her children. Also the single funniest person I ever met.

In my reminiscence of her, I tried to consider how Mom might have answered my daughter’s question had I been sharp enough to ask it of her myself. This is how I imagine she would have explained it…..

Going Places
(© 2013 Michael J. Cahill)

“Where Shall We Go?” has always been
My favorite game with you
When you were small upon my knee
What traveling we would do

The yard beyond our windowsill — ?
An icy mountain steep
Or a Viking ocean full of storm
Or a jungle forest deep

The universe was ours to roam
By land and sea and air
By hawk and mule and rocket fuel
What journey’s we would share

There is one voyage separate
From all that we will take
But oh, my love, though by myself
I will not you forsake

Yes, by and by, one day I’ll die
As all God’s creatures must
But I shall spend eternity
As something more than dust

And if I go to heaven
We will not be far apart
For don’t you know, my darling child
That heaven’s in your heart