Sunday, January 8, 2012

Discovering one's purpose (or not)

English: Anne's hut on the flank of Tornichelt...
Image via Wikipedia
Taking a break from the usual fare here, I was thinking about some of the things people say about discovering one's purpose after I ran across something along those lines on the internet.

It's not a bad thing to ponder, but it isn't easy either. Would you agree?

I like the idea that life and existence has its own intrinsic meaning that isn't imposed by any kind of external will, but is rather revealed and shaped, co-created if you will, by our choices. In that sense, life itself is the purpose, with everything else being secondary.

That sounds good, and it suggests that it is how we live in terms of awareness and openness to ourselves and what we encounter that matters most. Yet on a more prosaic level, we can still ask what kind of form this should take. That's what people often mean when they talk about finding a direction or purpose in life.

The advice gets really poor after that. It's the kind of stuff you probably find in the self-help industry--it sounds like it ought to work but it falls flat. Let's look at some examples.

A quote from a website and book called The Happiness Project suggests that you consider what it is you think about when you are on the toilet (or otherwise taking a break from your general activities). OK, well, I just keep thinking about whatever had my attention before, so that doesn't help. Does it help you?

Then there is one that has popped up so many times I don't know who to attribute it to. I really don't. In a generic formulation, it basically asks what you would do if you had infinite resources. That is, if you could live a long time with great health, had no debts or obligations, unlimited funds, all the intelligence and confidence you could use, etc, what would you choose to do to be fulfilled and to make the world a better place?


That's my honest answer. Sometimes I think about whatever neat or worthwhile thing I was recently exposed to and try to copy that, but it really doesn't come from me. What comes from the depth of my own being is just "Uhhhh..."  I really have no idea. I can't say what I would do. The more I try to sit with that question, the more clear it is that I am completely unclear on an answer. Any answer. Does something come to you when you ponder this?

Another generic and popular approach is to imagine yourself in the future and ask whether you still think that what you are doing is important. Would you be proud of yourself? Or is there something else you may wish you had found the courage to try?

A slightly different version of this is to meditate on the fact that death is certain but it's timing is uncertain. You could die in a few seconds or a few years. Who knows? With that in mind, what you do if you knew for certain you only had a specific amount of time before your death, say, a year?

Again, I just come up blank. I just don't know. I don't seem to have some deep aspiration or dream that I am eager to discover or develop. I think I'd like one, but that's not the same thing. Again, I can borrow other conventional ideas of success and try to fit them to my personal history and present situation, but that kind of response isn't really a passion. Does this kind of perspective help you?

And then something that is similar to our first approach, asking "What do you do all the time, even when you are busy or broke or tired? What do you always seem to find time to do?" I suppose distracting myself or sleeping don't count as a life purpose, so that's a bust. Does it shed any light on your own purpose?

Did I miss any? Do you have an approach that worked for you that isn't on this list? Feel free to share, or to share how one of these approaches actually helped you and what path it set you on. Kudos to anyone who cites the musical Avenue Q; yes, it's a refreshingly honest take on things. I saw it on Broadway just before it's official debut. But anyway, back to the purpose of this post -- have you discovered your purpose in life? What led you to it?

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  1. I'd like to meet a marine biologist who's purpose is to study porpoises.

    In all seriousness, as an atheist who has had some discussions with Christians, and as an ex-Christian who had discussions with non-believers, this question comes up a lot. Frequently in an almost accusatory manner. "If you don't believe in God (especially the version I believe in), then your life must have no meaning, no purpose!" Yes, I used to ask similar questions back when I though everyone who wasn't weeping at the foot of the cross along with me was just wasting their life, and going to hell to boot.

    I'm reminded of the quote from the movie Braveheart: “Every man dies, not every man really lives” ― William Wallace

    The only people who ever throw that in my face are people who don't know me personally. Anyone that knows me knows that my purpose is to return the love and respect my family and friends show me, to perhaps send some of that love and respect out to others, regardless of, station, creed, etc. Being a human being, with all the usual inherent flaws, I do not always succeed as well as I would like in living that way, but I consider my life as an exercise in getting better at my purpose.

    Thinking back to the Braveheart post, I know that I will die one day and regardless of the existence of an afterlife or not, my time here on earth will be done, but I hope that I will have spent the bulk of it really living.

    I'm also reminded of a piece by Celestial Navigations: Back Porch.

    Thank you for another thought provoking post.

  2. But what does it mean to you to "really live"? Do you think there is some groove in the fabric of the universe that you fit into, a calling or sense of being and doing what you were meant to do? Hey, I don't just do though provoking posts, I do provocative follow-up comments as well!


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