Having a sense of purpose is a key element to living well. That’s easy to say—or write. But actually connecting with that purpose and staying true to it is a whole different ballgame.
Purpose can be elusive, especially if you are the kind of person who changes a lot over time. Usually all that changing includes new directions in what you believe to be the point of being here at all. As you mature spiritually and emotionally, your sense of what your life is about gets deeper and more complex. Unless, of course you get distracted by…well….living.
It’s not full speed ahead toward that point on the horizon even if you do have a clear sense of why you’re on the planet. I just read of a couple who’d survived two nights on Mount Rainier—in January–after getting lost on what was supposed to be an easy snowshoe trek. Whatever their purpose was before they faced that peril, it was suspended while they dug snow caves, climbed steep slopes in the snow, and otherwise focused all their energy on surviving the immediate moment. Now that they did survive, their sense of purpose will most likely be permanently different.
My point? As you move through life, your assessment of “what’s the point?” is going to change. Acknowledging that is a good start toward keeping yourself both focused and satisfied.
Here’s an example: when you first have kids, your purpose is to parent them. But as they grow, your purpose on their behalf changes. Sure, you still love them, encourage them, and make sure they have the resources you can help them find to move toward being happy, successful adults. But you go from being the center of that child’s universe to being the font of all solutions to being a coach, then a cheerleader, and ultimately, a proud spectator. Parents who don’t understand that their parenting purpose changes end up hurt, angry, and worse.
When your purpose changes and you’re not in sync with that change, you won’t feel settled. It can make you restless or irritable or even angry. If those unpleasant emotions pop up without you being able to put a finger on “why,” you may want to take a look at what’s going on with your sense of purpose.
There are also a few things you can do to strengthen your sense of purpose at its core. In A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose Eckhart Tolle distinguishes between your internal purpose, which drives you toward ever higher evolution emotionally/spiritually, and an external purpose that addresses your contribution to the greater good as a worker, leader, teacher, whatever. It’s that external purpose that morphs again and again. Knowing your internal purpose at those times can keep your life satisfying.
When you think about “purpose,” think dynamically. Your sense of what you are here to do today will probably not be anywhere close to what you are focusing on in ten years. But also, think authentically. In Finding Your Way in a Wild New World Martha Beck recommends starting with your first answer to “What’s the point?” and digging deeper by asking successive questions that come from your previous answer until you get to the one that doesn’t produce another question. Then you’re at your core—at least according to Martha.
Here’s how it looked when I tried it:
When I started focusing on retirement issues, the answer to “Why am I doing this?” was “Because I’m furious with our cultural norm for how we treat people who are old enough to retire.” That answer produced the question “Why am I angry about that?” To that I answered “I’m angry because we all lose by doing it this way. More health problems, more social problems, and all that talent and experience wasted.”
Okay, so “Why am I upset about what society chooses to waste?” The answer to that was “There’s a better way that would benefit us all and I want to help bring that about.”
“And what’s the point of me being involved in that?” Well…”I need to help. I need to solve problems.”
Okay, now I’m to something intrinsic to me. I can use that awareness a lot of different ways. The point of my whole life is “How can I help?” I’m not here to be an “exoert.” I’m not here to sell gazillions of books. I’m here to help. Very soothing to know when my life gets crazy—or confusing.
Knowing there’s more than one version of purpose and understanding your core (or internal) purpose can make life more serene and satisfying—whether you are just stepping into adulthood or planning what you want to do in your 90th year.
Mary Lloyd is a speaker and consultant and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love . Her recently released e-book 39 Bites of Wisdom: Little Lessons on Getting Life Right is available exclusively on Kindle until March. For more, please see her website www.mining-silver.com.
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