I had been a Catholic my whole life, and a nun for six of those years. It wasn’t until a mountain lion attacked my 5-year-old daughter, standing next to me in a stream, and almost killed her, that I wondered for the first time whether there was really a God.

Once I asked that question, there was no going back.

I knew that a kind, loving, merciful God would never allow such random things to happen. I had a degree in theology. I knew all about evil –– from books! Nothing terrible had ever happened to me!

I knew that people chose bad things. We had our free will to blame for that –– a good explanation for evil like hatred, racism, and wars. But I began to think about all those other things –– earthquakes, tsunamis, birth defects, cancer –– the list of things that we didn’t choose was endless.

Most people find God in tragedy. They are thankful to Him that they were spared in the tornado or hurricane, even though it killed their neighbors. They believe God has some special purpose for them and perhaps saved them for a reason. And if that helps them find a worthwhile purpose in life, then that’s good. They feel terrible about the others who are not so lucky, but do they wonder HOW God chooses the ones he saves?

Sometimes I do wish I still believed. But not very often. I don’t think traumatic experiences are a test from God, that he gives you “only what you can handle,” or that he’s even there at all. Life is random.

So is it really different to get through trauma as an atheist? I would say yes. It shifts your perspective from “this is part of God’s plan” to ” I need to make my own plan.” And I did feel lonely and frightened –– no master plan, no God to guide me, no chance of an afterlife.

But I gradually learned that it was up to me to find a purpose. I began to realize what was really important in my life. All those trivial things I had cared about –– job problems, weight, clothes, picking the right paint color –– were meaningless. It made me realize just how important the love of family and friends is. And how important helping other people is.

What about your purpose in life? Do you feel you have been given one or that you need to find it yourself? Wherever your purpose comes from, I hope you find great joy in achieving it.