An encounter was responsible for changing the course of my life and for setting me on a path that would reveal my life purpose to myself.
Such a defining moment occurred when, in a marginal area of Palermo, I met with a young man affiliated to the Mafia. It was back in the summer of 1991 and I was taking the first steps in journalism.
Back then I was 22 years old, living with my parents in Trento, my hometown in Northern Italy. I was going to college and working part-time at a local TV station. My dream was to become a journalist.
At the time, I was also increasingly fascinated by the anti-mafia social movement that was growing in Palermo. Citizens were organizing and challenging the domination of the Mafia. Speaking up against the Mafia, they were breaking the long-standing and deep seeded law of silence. A cultural transformation was happening.
A defining trip to Palermo
I wanted to get a first hand exposure to that revolution. I asked the editors of the TV station to let me go to Palermo. I insisted, until they agreed to pay the flight tickets for myself and a cameraman. I had to pay for everything else, including lodging and food, but I was happy for the opportunity to travel to the other end of my country, to the deep south. At the time, to me it felt like going to the front line of history.
This is how I met Cosimo, then a 17 years old teenager, living in a small apartment in a peripheral neighborhood of Palermo. Despite his young age, he had already a respectable criminal pedigree.
In fact, Cosimo’s entire family had been engaged with the underworld of crime. His father, affiliated to the Cosa Nostra, had been killed during the Mafia wars of the early 1980s. Cosimo was only 10 years old when he was orphaned. Since he was a child, his life purpose was to revenge the killing of his father.
When we met, Cosimo had been locked up in a juvenile prison already a few times. He was stealing cars and was proud of being able to provide for his family. But when, in school, he met his English teacher, Cosimo came in touch with a different sets of values and a way of life he wasn’t aware of. He started to like what the teacher had to say. It was thanks to this English teacher, a common friend, that Cosimo and I met.
The one bedroom apartment where Cosimo lived was crowded with family members. His mother shared her king-size bed with a few children, while others were sleeping on the floor.
Cosimo, who was barefoot and wore only jeans when he opened the door to let us in, barely looked at me. Throughout the evening he refused to speak Italian and spoke only dialect, impossible for me to understand. He communicated with me only through the English teacher. In that environment, I felt like an alien, unwanted. It was a rough start.
For me, to be in contact with this reality of marginalization was a first. It struck me how different my upbringings were from Cosimo’s. Never had I previously realized, as I did that night in Palermo, how many opportunities life had provided to me.
In the days following our encounter, Cosimo slowly let down his suspicion and begun to trust me more. With that, he also opened up more about his personal life and shared with me the desire for a life change.
That hit me. Here I was in the presence of a teenager, whose life had been anything but easy, living in a condition of marginality, already labeled by society as a criminal, and yet willing to transform his personal life.
There was nobody promising him a different and better future. Actually, everything surrounding him, suggested that he could not escape the fate of a marginalized and criminal life. Everything and everyone around him just proved that to him.
And yet, despite the evidence, he believed that he could have a different life.
It was the rapport he had built with his English teacher that allowed him to gaze at a possible alternative and to imagine a different future.
I had admiration for Cosimo and I also questioned myself deeply.
Some serious soul searching
What was I doing with the privileges and opportunities that life had given me? I had a good life, which included a car, vacations with my friends and a job that I loved. But was there something more to life?
In Palermo, not only did I meet Cosimo, but also people who were on the other side, putting their life the line to fight the Mafia. These were men and women determined to transform their own society.
For which cause was I ready to give my life? How was I making a dent in the universe? What was my life purpose?
Those were the questions that pierced my mind during my one-week stay in Palermo. Those were questions I had to answers, if I was to have a fulfilling and meaningful life. A job, a car, vacations, and a family, would not in itself give me happiness — which, more than a passing emotion, I see as an attitude towards life.
Meeting Cosimo was an earthquake. My life was turned upside down. I felt small and ridiculous with my petty complaints and excuses, compared to Cosimo’s life history and his willingness to change.
The encounter with Cosimo was a key event in my life. Nothing would remain the same. My life took a new path.
Our purpose of life is often revealed by external circumstances. Serendipity plays often an big role in finding our voice. I wouldn’t have 25 years of experience working in conflict resolution, if it wasn’t for that important trip to Palermo.
The existential turmoil provoked by my experience in Palermo continued when I flew back home, where I proved incapable of adjusting to the routine of my previous life.
One night I wrote a letter to my parents. I had made a choice, I told them: I was moving to Palermo, leaving behind the world I had known until then and taking the risk of stepping into the unknown.
A few weeks later, I was on a plane to Palermo in whose urban reality I immersed myself completely, joining the social anti-mafia movement and working with the anti-mafia leader Leoluca Orlando. Thus began my personal inquiry to discover my life purpose.
It all began because I let myself be affected by the encounter with another person, which in turn allowed for an intimate encounter with myself. Cosimo had held up a mirror to my soul. I had listen to life.
What I saw in that mirror wasn’t bad. It was ok, but it wasn’t great.
“I have only one life, this life!” I remember saying to myself with some urgency. “What will I do with the only life I have? What contribution will I make to the world?”
I believe this is the fundamental question we have to ask ourselves if we want to experience a fulfilling and meaningful life.
What’s your life about? What’s your contribution to the world?
Searching an honest and courageous answer to this question will sets us on a journey of personal transformation that ultimately will also allow us to make a dent in the universe. It’s personal transformation for world transformation.
To help you get clarity of purpose, I assembled 19 powerful questions, which will guide you through a simple but profound personal inquiry. It might be the opportunity for you to start (or to continue… or to jump start again) that journey that for me began with my encounter with Cosimo. The info-graph is free of any charge.
Let me finish by mentioning that Cosimo today lives a transformed life, the life he dreamed for himself. He married and because a father of two children. He also left Palermo and now lives in a town in Northern Italy, where he works as a mechanic. He left his life as a criminal behind… but not his love for cars!