Life Purpose As Taught By a Child With Special Needs

We’ve probably all read at least one book or even  one short article on some area of self-improvement. We are sure that if we can just fix one thing that’s wrong, we’ll finally find ultimate happiness in our lives.

If I’m thinner, I will be happy. If I get my degree, I’ll be happy. If I meet the right man, I’ll live happily ever after (thanks, Disney).

We’re all looking for that elusive happiness, but my daughter has taught me we don’t need to do or have ‘stuff’ or be a particular way to find happiness. We’re happy by default as long as our basic needs are met. Sarah is 11 and has Ring Chromsome 22 with intellectual disability and she is always happy. I mean ALWAYS. She has no concept of not being good enough. She doesn’t know to compare her looks, hair, body, clothes, toys, IQ or status in life to that of another person and feel bad about herself for not measuring up to standards set by other people.

The only time Sarah doesn’t have a smile on her face is when her belly is telling her she’s hungry and I’m late getting dinner fixed.  Other than that, she always has a smile on her face and when people see her, they tend to smile back. She radiates joy.  She doesn’t necessarily have a particular reason to smile at any given moment. The thing is, she doesn’t have a reason NOT to smile. Unless she’s hungry or fallen and scraped a knee.  And in that case, she typically gets right back up and keeps walking.

Sarah has taught me patience. There was a time when I actually did cry over spilled milk. Today, spills are almost an everyday occurrence and I just figure that’s why we have paper towels.  And bath towels, depending on the size of the spill.  She is slower to learn everything so I have had to learn to be very patient.  I was much less patient with my two older kids.  Sarah’s into double digits and she is still learning toilet training. That’s something I could never have imagined when my other two were little and I couldn’t wait to get them fully potty-trained by age three.

Sarah doesn’t worry about her place in the world, what her purpose is, what she wants to be when she grows up. She loves people and people love her. She loves music, dancing, looking at magazines, playing in the water and going to the playground. She’s alive and she is happy.

I’ve never known what I want to be when I ‘grow up’.   I’ve stressed about this for a long time.  What is my purpose?  Then I remember that Sarah wakes up happy every morning even though she needs someone to take her to the toilet, get her dressed, do her hair, cut her nails, get her food, brush her teeth, take her outside to play, turn on her music.  And then I think, isn’t that my purpose now?  To help her through life, teach her as much as she can learn and help her with the rest?

I saw an obituary recently for a retired university professor that read like a resume.  It didn’t name any friends and only named one family member in another state.  It chronologically listed degrees, awards, internships, positions held, board memberships, etc.  I had just finished my first (and probably only) college degree, which had been such an important goal of mine to reach.  I was proud of my accomplishment and this person obviously had a lot to be proud of, too.  But this obituary struck me as a little sad.  That and my stunted job hunt got me thinking about what really matters.

Between the two of us, I think Sarah and I have figured out that life purpose can but does not necessarily equal a career.  At the end of the day – or life – no one will care what degrees we got or what we did to pay the mortgage.  What will matter is that we learned a little from and taught a little to each person we knew, we were patient, accepted and loved ourselves and others as they were, were there for those who needed us and radiated joy.

I’m still trying to find my way but I’m going to see if it is possible – like Sarah and most other children – to be happy by default just because I got the opportunity to exist in this world and wake up one more day.

What gives you purpose?

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