What Chadwick Boseman Taught Me About Purpose

Losing Chadwick Boseman was a tremendous loss, but he taught us the sense of purpose.

Among the many things that 2020 took from us, Chadwick Boseman was a big loss. In late August, news broke that he had died of colon cancer — a disease that hardly anyone knew he was battling. 

Boseman’s biggest role was playing the titular character in Marvel’s Black Panther movie, and his legacy will certainly be long-lived. In fact, even after his death, he is still making headlines. In early December 2020, he received the Hero for the Ages Award at the MTV Movie and TV Awards. And in this year’s Gotham Awards from the Independent Filmmaker Project, he is also receiving the Actor Tribute along with Viola Davis, whom he worked with on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Boseman’s death hit me hard. I thought Black Panther was a beautiful film, and I was drawn to Boseman’s T’Challa when I saw the character on-screen for the first time in Captain America: Civil War, where the Black Panther was clearly the oddity among the hodgepodge of Avengers.

T’Challa acted differently from the other Avengers because he didn’t hold a grudge. He was filled with a reasonable anger against his father’s murderer, yet the Black Panther showed mercy to this man. He became the peacekeeper after seeing all the division sown among the Avengers. In this and all the subsequent Marvel films, Boseman brought a depth of humanity to his character.

His role as the Black Panther was the culmination of a rich career in the performing arts — a profession which, for Boseman, had its early development in studying directing at Howard University. After graduating in 2000, Boseman pursued further study for a time and then put all his energies into following his passion for acting. He acquired acclaim for playing a wide spectrum of roles — from Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball player in the Major Leagues, to singer-songwriter James Brown.

Through his career, Boseman was able to touch the lives of countless people both in front of the camera and behind it. He was tender to his co-workers and was a hero to the forgotten. He was uncompromising in calling out misrepresentation in the projects he was involved in. And he did all of this while battling a terminal illness.

What gave him the drive to remain selfless in the face of his own suffering? What gave him the drive to pursue justice even when it could have cost him opportunity? It was his sense of purpose. 

When he died, the Howard University community recalled the commencement speech Boseman gave to the 2018 graduating class, and his words continue to ring true to us today because he shone a light on how purposefulness carries us through struggles. “Purpose is the essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history,” he said. “The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”

“Sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you,” he said.

Boseman believed God is always present in our lives. He was a firm believer in the notion of Providence — the idea that God is involved in our lives, that He has plans for us, that He is always present for us. “When God has something for you,” he said, “it doesn’t matter who stands against it.”

It is easy to take the good things in life for granted. If there’s anything the last year has brought to the forefront of our lives, it’s to cherish the good we experience every day — whether that’s the presence of loved ones, the capacity to work, or our health. So often we lose sight of these ordinary realities, but Boseman reminded us that these everyday things are gifts that we have been given by our Creator, and that we should notice and appreciate all the good things we receive.

“Don’t just swallow the moment whole without digesting what is actually happening here,” he told the graduates. “Look down over what you conquered and appreciate what God has brought you through.”

He said that at Howard he learned to be “amused with life” — which he defined as receiving a sense of life’s goodness and blessings that he carried within him long after graduation. I really think that’s why he smiles so unabashedly in his photos. That’s who he seemed to be, as a person — he didn’t hold anything back.

Finding his purpose and remaining grateful gave Boseman contentment and perseverance. That’s how he got up each morning and continued to touch other people’s lives. His selflessness made him a superhero in real life, not just as Black Panther on the big screen. His memory is something we can all learn from.

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