The Greater Purpose of Your Work

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Earlier this week I met with five ladies who recently read Spiritual Misfit together as their book club selection. We sat around a large table in the back corner of the local Perkins. They bought me a slice of warm apple pie, and we drank decaf coffee, and we laughed; we laughed a whole lot, which, the ladies told me, is something they do often. They shared their favorite parts of the book — the infamous Cheez-It story, the buying-my-first-Bible story — and asked me some questions about the writing process, and the conversation meandered here and there as they shared bits and pieces of their own stories, too. We sat around that table in the back corner of Perkins for nearly two hours, and I tell you what, I could have stayed all night.

When I got home, I flopped onto the couch, kicked off my shoes and told my husband, “I needed that. That’s the part I always forget about.”

Spiritual Misfit sold three copies on Amazon last week. Three copies. I probably don’t need to tell you that’s abyssmal from a sales perspective.

But here’s the flip side, the part of the story I always forget: that piddly little number doesn’t tell the whole story. Not by a long shot. That dot graphed onto a long, plummeting line of diminishing sales doesn’t tell the story of five ladies laughing around a table in the back corner of Perkins. That number doesn’t tell the story of Julie’s copy of Spiritual Misfit, its pages festooned with no fewer than a dozen blue and yellow tabs, or the other Julie’s book,  notes covering the inside back cover in tiny script. She’d read the book twice, she told me.

That plummeting graph on Amazon.com, that weekly sales report, is missing one critical, unplottable part of the story: the greater purpose.

I listened to an interview with the cellist Yo Yo Ma while I ran this morning, and among the many profoundly beautiful statements he made during the show was this observation, about what happens when something goes wrong logistically during a performance:

“Whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose. The greater purpose is that we’re communing together, and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all? It’s not about how many people are in the hall. It’s not about proving anything.”

I let that statement ping around the inside of my head for a while as I plodded down the path. I thought about how Yo Yo Ma’s words  relate to my own journey, both as a writer and a human being, and here’s where I ended up:

The “engineering side” of any pursuit – the planning, the practicing, the execution, the expectations, the numbers, the sales, the success — is important, but it’s not the whole story, it’s not the greater purpose. The greater purpose of Yo Yo Ma’s music, and my little book, and the dozens of other creations both large and small each one of us offers with open hands to the universe each day is in the communing, the coming together, that happens as a result.

Most of us don’t ever get to see that part. Yo Yo Ma probably doesn’t see it from his seat under the glaring lights on the stage. I don’t see it from my seat at my desk in the corner of the sunroom. Chances are, you don’t see the greater purpose of your work and your creation either, from wherever you sit right now. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Tuesday night I caught a glimpse of the greater purpose of my work, and it didn’t have anything to do with numbers or with proving anything, just as Yo Yo Ma said. Rather, it had everything to do with five ladies who gather around a table twice a month in the back corner of Perkins cafe.

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