I have long had a personal distate for the interview question, “Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?” and my wife will also tell you I have a general aversion to goal-setting as a rule. It’s not that I am afraid to set or commit to a goal, it’s just that so often where I end up has very little to do with where I PLANNED on ending up. I listed that as a personal flaw for a long time, but over the past few years, I’ve learned to celebrate it and look forward to discovering what I will find out about my purpose “in the moment”, wherever it is I find myself.
Take a look at the main image for this post. This big guy has fascinated me from the time he was about half the height he is now. I call him Sully.
(it would be best to grab onto the anthropomorphization now or you’re just going to be irritated).
If you’re a Facebook friend, you may remember me posting this picture a month or so back with the tag, “I think there is a story in here”.
Indeed, there is.
Thus, I bring you the tale of Sully, the Sunflower Who Dared Not Show His Face.
For years, we have tried, with an utter and complete lack of success, to plant sunflowers in our backyard gardens. And each year, critters of all sorts have made quick work of the green shoots as they sprang up optimistically from the earth. Eventually, we just stopped trying. One of the things we have NOT stopped doing, however, is feeding our neighborhood birds, and we have found that the most colorful and interesting birds love a mix that is chock full of sunflower seeds. Birds, as you may or may not know, are not tidy eaters. Seed gets EVERYWHERE. And, where we had failed in our intentional cultivation of a sunflower garden, nature in her providence has brought a number of fallen seeds to life under the bird feeder (along with unwanted other plants from the seed mix – thistle, millet, etc. – that’s another post altogether).
Sully, however, is different. He’s not under the feeder. Not only is he mispurposed (our “5 year plan” for him unfortunately involved avian digestion), he is also misplaced (we may be able to understand and excuse the mispurposed few who took root beneath the feeder, but what’s this guy’s deal?)
Was he dropped on our pathway as a bird flitted away in fear of a human emerging from the house or one of those well-known birdfeeder bullies? (I’m looking at you, blue jay). Had he actually already fulfilled his purpose as food for a bird and was ready to be (ahem) repurposed through other methods?
One can speculate all day as to how “Sully as seed” came to be where he was, just as we can all speculate as to how we came to be where we are in the world. Especially as a child, I would let my mind wander and wonder about how I came to be born in the United States. Why not China? Or Australia – that would have been pretty cool (shout out to my Aussie friends!). Is there divine providence behind everything? Is it all just a cosmic intersection of time and space? Regardless of how you ask or answer these questions, in the end I think we all grapple with the classic existential questions: “What am I doing here? What is my purpose? In this time and in this place, what will I be known for? How will I be remembered, if I’m remembered at all?”
Back to Sully.
Sully popped up from the mulch in the walkway. I still can’t believe he wasn’t devoured by the plentiful yard rodents of all sorts who dig holes and elaborate tunnel systems under my lawn. Somehow, against all odds, he survived – out of place, and without purpose.
But was he?
Was he out of place?
Did he lack purpose?
The truth is, while he has not grown where I would have chosen, other purposes have found HIM where he is. A closer look reveals that Sully has fed some insects and has become some sort of “ant highway”. Why do ants scurry up and down his furry stalk? I have no idea. I can only assume there is a reason.
As I waited for Sully to mature, I found myself anxiously waiting with my camera, ready to capture his face as it opened joyfully and triumphantly to greet his namesake (the “sun”, not Sully). Imagine my disappointment when his bloom drooped, chin to chest, in apparent embarrassment, disappointment, disillusionment, or whatever other dismay an anthropomorphic sunflower might experience upon blooming.
I kept waiting.
Maybe his neck needed to strengthen first? But no, this downcast countenance was (and is) to be Sully’s singular presentation to the world.
It’s a shame. The more I’ve watched him and thought about purpose (both his and mine), the more things I’ve found to appreciate. For example, the corner of the walkway which became his lifelong home is right in front of my absolute favorite place in the entire backyard. Each May, the trellis you can see in the picture behind him absolutely bursts with clematis blooms. Every time, without fail, I am overcome by its bounty and beauty.
But it doesn’t last.
Before long, the blooms fade, and the petals fall. Sure, the leftover skeletons have a Seussian coolness about them, and the greenery afterwards is nice for a while, but eventually that, too, fades and leaves a vista of browns and grays.
The good news?
Now Sully is there. I didn’t plan it. Sully didn’t plan it.
But there he is, easing my late summer into the crisp coolness of autumn (I think maybe chrysanthemums and pumpkins are designed to ease me from the crisp coolness of autumn into the deathly cold of winter, but so far no plant has succeeded at that. If I find one, you’ll read about it here).
So raise your face, Sully! And you! Out there! You, who may feel like a Sully – out of place and without a purpose – it’s there. Your purpose. Maybe someone else will see your value and reveal it to you. Maybe you will uncover it yourself as you contemplate the world around you. But of this I have no doubt. Ever. Each of us has a reason for being. Keep looking. Keep looking for it in yourself. Keep looking for it in others and help them discover it for themselves.
I can’t POSSIBLY leave this entry without dropping the cliche that is begging to be dropped:
Bloom where you are planted.
And when you bloom…
Raise your face to the sun.
Well said (written?), Ben. I am reminded of a recent conversation with a teaching colleague, an atheist, who declared to me his problem with “the divine” and “so-called free will” is precisely what you are referring to, that one cannot chose one’s parents; where one “is planted.” My response was similar to your conclusion here, you land where you land. Your choice is in what you will do with that.
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