The most two important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why
– Mark Twain
I spent years contemplating my “why.” For many of us, understanding our life’s purpose is constant evolution. Our journeys are often complex and filled with both triumph and tragedy. In college, it’s difficult enough sometimes to coordinate a schedule and ensure that we have enough credits hours to graduate. Much less, think about internships and a post- college career. When we are asked to declare a major or join student organizations, we may not have yet fully identified our interests or discovered our passions. And, that’s ok.
As a still-undecided sophomore, sitting in a Literary Interpretation course, taking copious notes and breastfeeding my 8-week-old son, I finally understood for the first time, my purpose in life. As my professor read aloud the above quote, my short life flashed before my eyes.
Born in Washington, DC, my family relocated to Memphis, TN when I was 5 years old. Raised by by a white, Jewish mother who was also a human rights activist, my sister and I participated in marches and rallies from women’s rights to racial justice. Trudging on tiny legs, singing protest songs. I assumed that everyone had parents who dragged them to city council and school board meetings. My first memory of advocacy was sleeping inside of a concrete building tube, across the street from the White House, protesting famine in Bangladesh. I was 3 years old.
Survivorship had been my life story. Poverty, extreme racism, domestic and sexual violence. And now, I was a young single mom, struggling to finish my degree.
In that moment, I realized that what I had perceived as struggle was actually my strength. I thought about the women from whom I’d descended.
Daughter descendant of Mary Izalene Murff, born in the hills where Appalachia meets Mississippi. Born a free Black woman in 1871, a few years after the abolishment of slavery. She toiled in cotton fields under the broiling sun. Daughter descendant of Illie Murff. Born in 1901 in Choctaw County, Alabama. She received a scholarship to attend boarding school until sexual violence interrupted her educational pursuits and she escaped to the Delta, bore 14 children, experienced a life of harsh challenge and died at the age of 51. Daughter descendant of Rebecca Aleglan, a Jewish immigrant who left a life in Kiev, Russia to pursue The American Dream. Speaking little English, she stayed home to raise her children and served as surrogate mom to an orphan girl during the Great Depression. Daughter-descendant of Carolyn Linx Orrin, born in Detroit in 1920. My grandmother worked for 50 years at Efficient Engineering, never rising above the title of office manager, although she trained the children of the company’s founder and assisted with supervising 300 male engineers while raising five children of her own. She was born at a time when women, white women like herself, were just beginning to experience political freedom with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment yet still faced great gender inequity. And finally, daughter descendant of Susanne Jackson, who as a 23-year-old social justice activist and graduate of the University of Michigan, was the lead organizer for the 100,000 person March on the Pentagon in opposition of the Vietnam War in 1967.
I realized that I had been harnessing the unwavering fortitude of these women as a 20-year-old student teaching my young son to read in between exams while juggling three part-time, low wage jobs.
I knew then that I was destined to be an agent of change.
Your journey is your strength. It may look different for each one of us. It may sometimes be difficult and feel impossible. Know that you are treading a path that others have already cleared.
Live your passion to discover your purpose so that you realize your possibilities.