I’m the kind of person who likes to have a plan. A path marked. A trajectory laid out. I like to know where I’m headed and what I need to be doing along the way to stay well… on the plan. I work best knowing what’s the next right thing to do. I see my preference for order most evident when I go to the airport. I know that I need to pack at least a day in advance so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. I frequently refresh my phone until it’s time to check in to my flight. I calculate how many hours early I will need to show up so that I have time to get through security without sweating, grab some Starbucks and my favorite bag of pretzels, and still have an hour to sit at the gate. Ya know, in case my gate gets changed to another terminal.
So what happens when I don’t have a plan? Or worse my plans get ruined? On a small scale, like when I don’t plan for the extra traffic on my morning commute, I get angry, anxious, and resentful. Angry at the other commuters for ruining my morning, anxious that I won’t have time to get what I need to before work happens and resentful of the selfishness of the slow driver in front of me. Surely I’m not the only one who does this, right?
I wish that I was a fly by the seat of her pants kind of girl but that’s just not me. Plans allow me to manage my expectations, my hopes, and my fears. If I were to, God forbid, “wing it” I could get my hopes up or have too high of expectations and that’s just a recipe for disappointment. Can you see the self protection yet?
I have an active imagination so if you were to ask me what’s the plan for my life, I could give you about a hundred different answers. I would spout off all about the things I want to do if I’m given the time. But if we keep talking long enough, I’ll eventually start to cry because I don’t actually have a plan for that. Not one that seems to work anyway. I’ve made daily plans, five year plans, and ten year plans, and each time I’ve watched them fall apart in one way or another. When that happens, multiply my extra traffic in the morning response, times a hundred and add in confusion, shame, and doubt.
When I don’t have a plan or when my plans fail, I quickly turn into a sitting duck of emotions. I’m confused because it seems like I’m the only one experiencing this set back and everyone I went to college with seems to be checking boxes on their plans left and right. Did I pick the wrong career or the wrong city? Maybe I should’ve taken that job offer? What exactly was it that made that relationship end?
My questions quickly turn into self-decided answers, none of which are helpful and all that lead to self-shaming or anger. And trust me when I say, none of those emotions are a part of my plans. That’s me in a normal situation.
Now throw in the events of the last couple months as I’ve watched chaos, indecision, and sickness spread throughout the world and in my own life. I don’t have a plan for how to deal with COVID-19. I don’t know how to manage my anxiety or the grief of losing the plans I had for this year or watching vulnerable people struggle to find help. What I’m finding is that the harder I try to white knuckle my plans for this year, the more anxious and hopeless I feel. There is no five step plan for how to make it through social distancing well or knowing birthdays and weddings will have to be cancelled.
And as I have struggled to seek God’s plan and brought question after question, I’ve been surprised by the answers I’ve been given. When I asked the Lord what to do with the loss of my plans, I was met with a question in return. “Could you focus on your purpose instead of your plans?”
Woof. I was kind of hoping for more of a “No worries, Sarah! This will all be over and back to our regularly scheduled programming by May!” kind of response but no dice. Despite my initial reaction to resist this invitation, I have realized it actually offers me more freedom and life than I could’ve imagined.
We are created to have purpose. I believe our generation resonates with this perhaps more than those who came before us. And I think at times, it can be easy to confuse purpose with a plan. Purpose is the reason we do what we do when we wake up in the morning. It’s what drives us, fuels us, even empowers us when things get tough. All a plan gives us is a list for how to achieve something.
My purpose in this life is not to buy a home, have a cute garden, throw parties for my friends or to be relevant and well-liked. My purpose is to love others well by making space for people to show up as their truest selves and let them know there’s a God who loves them deeply. And that’s it. And that, that I can do whether my plans come to fruition or not. I can do that while I’m quarantined at my parent’s house. I can do that when I don’t get the job I wanted or my life looks radically different than what I think it should. And that gives me room to breathe.
Living out one’s purpose allows us to maintain our focus on God–to be truly free to be who God made us to be.