Primary and Secondary Purpose

At a recent celebration of a past teacher of mine, a keynote speaker told a story of a purpose.

A city dweller had purchased land on a whim in the countryside and had forged a connection with the farmer next door. Knowing little about farming, but having an insatiable interest in growing things, he bought the land and got to it. It was hobby project, not his livelihood– a summer home of sorts, but one that brought him such joy to experiment in planting crops and flowers.  And as it happened, the farming adventure led to a friendship with a seasoned farmer next door who was willing to offer practical advice, lend tools and assistance, and guide the city dweller in his fantastical efforts.

Years passed and the farmer’s wife passed on as well. Now much older, unable to care for the land into his old age, or keep up with the maintenance of the farmhouse, and the farmer found himself preparing to move into an assisted living home in the coming weeks.  His beloved land was was being auctioned off as well as the farmhouse and most of its possessions.

The city dweller purchased some chairs from the auction and went one day to collect them from the house. The farmer, happy to see his friend before his move, remarked that he was grateful that someone he knew and cared about was taking the chairs. Surprised by this, the city dweller inquired why this was. They were nice, solid chairs, but certainly not heirlooms pieces.  What was it about the chairs?

The farmer said that the chairs primary purpose of course was for sitting and that they were very good and sturdy for that purpose, and that over many decades those chairs had served he and his wife well in that regard.  Sure, they had some knicks and scratches and marks from time, but their remaining days certainly outnumbered his own. Their significance was not in the primary purpose of the chairs, but their secondary purpose. And that was that they brought he and his wife together each night, to reflect on their days, which turned into weeks, which turned into years, and their lifetime together.  The chairs provided a space for togetherness, for pause and conversation over a lifetime.

He said the chairs held memories of his young pregnant wife, of her as a new mother nursing their children, of them watching storms dance across their fields together as a family. He said the chairs were where he became a grandpa, nestling a new grandchild and meeting each other for the first time, completely enamored.

The chairs held precocious children (and numerous more grandchildren) in pouty time-outs, and children nestled on grown up laps reading stories next to the Christmas tree, and children’s coloring books and crayons which often missed the pages and made their presence known on the wood. The chairs had been the backbone of forts and caves and castles through the years with linens and sheets and blankets and doilies strewn across the top. They’d been the trusty accomplice, a partner in crime to reach the top cabinets in the kitchen where the treats were hidden from sight. The chairs held the occasional household cat over the years – and stacks of books and magazines that were read or sometimes just collected upon them to keep the cats off.

The chairs, he said, had held friends, tipsy from summer porch beers and eyes wet from laughter, and sometimes held them safely until the next morning when they’d gather their senses and keys and head home. The chairs had held his wife, sick, with an afghan blanket around her as her remaining days dwindled. The chairs held visitors paying their respects after his wife died, friends who had travelled near and far to share a memory, and to hold his hand.

The farmer remarked that the chairs of course we’re just a place to sit, and that the city dweller would find them to be adequate for that use – sturdy, reliable. That was their primary purpose of course, sitting, but their secondary purpose was to gather and that they had served him well throughout his lifetime.

I listened the speaker telling this story, shifting uncomfortable in a folding plastic chair in a high school gymnasium and wondered about this notion of primary and secondary purpose. How many objects and things are utilitarian, and we miss the underlying secondary purpose of their everyday existence in our life? How many people are utilitarian, and we miss their underlying secondary purpose of their everyday existence in our life?

We talk a lot about the purpose of jobs and Starfire’s approach to helping people with developmental disabilities in becoming employed.  We’ve been successful in this work – helping well over thirty different people find unique jobs that fit their skillset and their limitations.  From IT to marketing to gardening and hospitality services.

The primary purpose of any job is to earn a paycheck and to fill up one’s time, to have something to do.  But the primary purpose of employment isn’t why we’ve supported people with disabilities in finding a job and working to help them keep it. The secondary purpose is the driving factor behind this work of finding work.  The secondary purpose of working for many people with developmental disabilities is more important than the primary. To fill one’s time is fine, necessary even, but not if that time is filled with meaningless, disrespectful, devalued tasks.

Do we find jobs just to find jobs?  The answer has always been a resounding no. The secondary purpose of work and Starfire’s work of finding employment has been in the nature and potential of relationships.  In becoming a coworker, having a role within a team, being needed, being known, making a contribution, and perhaps in some places, and perhaps over time becoming a friend.

Sure, a chair is a place to sit. But the farmers story tells us that its secondary, and perhaps true purpose, is providing a space for human connection.

Sure, a job is a place to earn money.  But perhaps its secondary- and true purpose in relation to our work of community building- is providing a space for connection as well.  An additional avenue for people with developmental disabilities to be known, be seen, be valued, be accepted, be challenged, be needed, be respected.