Everything we create in this material world – objects, products, processes etc. – we create for a purpose. From the hammer to the home, from cans to central heating, each item is designed and built for a purpose. Even art is created to fulfil a purpose that could be to shock, project a message or be aesthetically pleasing. So you would think the purpose of the actual ‘creator’ of all of these ‘things’ would be an ‘easy pick’. But it’s not. Most people find it enormously difficult to articulate their purpose in life. And as the old saying goes ‘if you don’t live your life on purpose you will live your life by accident’. In fact it seems very few of us will live our life ‘on purpose’ and it’s probably true to say that most of us will fall into line with (some would say be ‘trapped by’) the prevailing culture in which we find ourselves.
While we may believe we are masters of our fate we are easily herded through life in a direction that is imposed by others. Implicit in the herding process is an underlying and unspoken purpose which is to be an ‘achiever’ and a ‘consumer’. A life of achievement and consumption emerges from the prevailing paradigm of most societies that are largely based on a producer/consumer model. It’s a model that aims to generate continuous economic and material growth. It’s not an absolutely wrong purpose to ‘adopt’, but there are other choices. The main thing is that we consciously make that choice for ourselves. If we don’t, then the ‘accident frequency’ along with a draining of enthusiasm will likely increase with the passage of time. What has become known as a mid-life crisis is often based on a sudden realization that our true purpose has not yet been discovered.
Now some say a ‘life purpose’ is not just something that you choose from life’s supermarket shelf of possibility. They say our purpose is already built in to our psyche, into the very heart of our soul. And just as the acorn has a blueprint of the mighty oak embedded within it, we too have our own blueprint and the pivotal point around which it is drawn is or innate purpose. However, ‘detecting’ what lies deep within the ‘self’ requires some reflection, contemplation and probably some kind of meditation. Many factors can trigger insight into our personal purpose and induce the AHA moment.
Included in those useful areas of reflection are the eight most common beliefs around what our life purpose may be. So if it suddenly dawns that you don’t know why you are here, if you realize it might be useful to get out of ‘accident mode’, if you think it might be helpful to have a clear sense of direction for your life or if you thought you were living your purpose but you are now not so sure, here are some possibilities for your reflection, rumination, cogitation and contemplation.
1. To Breed!
One of the most commonly held beliefs is that we are essentially here to procreate. It is the idea that we are only alive so that we can pass on our genes and keep both our lineage and the human race going. This idea is so deeply embedded in some societies that it is seen as a duty to breed and breed frequently! It is an easy and, for some, an obvious answer to our life purpose. But it tends to place us in the same box as rabbits. It is also a purpose that stems from the belief that says we are only physical beings and thereby denying any other dimension to our life. Yet, with a few moments reflection, it’s obvious that we are more than just a bag of bones with some sophisticated sensors on the outside. There is a whole invisible, intangible inner universe in which we live and have our being called consciousness. It is a universe in which the reality of our awareness gives us access to values, feelings and choices, not to mention our creative capacity at a mental and spiritual level. All this seems to suggest there is something slightly deeper to do in life than multiply. Besides, procreation is not something we can be doing all the time. It’s an occasional event, even in nature, even with rabbits. And our purpose is more likely to be something that we have the capacity to do all the time, not just once a year, and even then for only half the gender divide.
2. To Achieve
Many will spend their life believing that achieving is the be all and end all. They are schooled to think big, think ambitiously, to think that a lifetime of achievement is the mark of a successful life. Lifetime achievement awards are prized and the applause that comes with them is sought if not craved. Underlying this is often the fear that when they arrive at life’s ‘end point’ someone is going to say, “And what have you done with your life,” and their answer might be, “Well not much actually”. So their purpose in life is focused around a metaphorical trophy cabinet full of tangible evidence of the achievements that have brought the applause of others and the prizes that denote ‘achievement success’. The downside of this sense of purpose is that it tends to delay real happiness. It generates a dependence on the recognition and approval of others and therefore a background tension derived from the possibility of not getting it. And so the fear of failure becomes both a negative motivator and an energy drain. Setting and achieving goal after goal, always being absorbed in the movement to the next achievement, also tends to keep us lost in ‘busyness’. The ‘action addict’ and the ‘rushaholic’ are busy avoiding their inner life and burnout can be an eventual destination, an accidental achievement! Perhaps this is why they say that busyness is the laziness of the West!
3. To Grow
There is sometimes the idea that we are here to grow, not physically but in capacity, both mental and intellectual. And that certainly seems to be a possibility. However, it tends to be confused with the accumulation of more beliefs and ideas. In most societies learning is confused with memorizing, and in an academic context we often believe ‘growing’ is the accumulation and application of more of other peoples information. But it only tends to weigh us down and it increasingly inhibits our personal potential and power with more layers of other people’s concepts and beliefs. Mental and intellectual capacity is not about storing more but expanding and refining the use of our own mind and intellect. A secondary confusion is the belief that a better mind is a mind that thinks ‘more’ thoughts, that is more productive, and that a better intellectual capacity is measured by ‘more’ judgments and ‘more’ decisions. Capacity building at this inner level however is about thinking less, judging less. A simple mind is not a simplistic mind, it is simply no longer full of unnecessary or shallow thinking. And the sign of a more effective intellect is the ability to collapse complexity back to essence with one inner glance, with on simple insight, not expanding into ever more theory, however grand. A refined intellect working at full capability has the ability to apply appropriate wisdom to whatever is being faced in the moment.
However a purpose of self-growth in life so often seems to be confined only to our own personality and therefore somewhat self-centred. While the inner work of refining our inner capacities is bound to positively impact the quality of our relationships and perhaps the contribution we can make to the world, it is more likely that the improvements of these inner instruments of our consciousness are prior to and feeding into a higher or greater purpose.
4. To Survive
Perhaps the most common response to what is the purpose of our life is to ‘survive’. It’s another one of those learned beliefs that says the world is a dangerous place and that it is imperative to look out for and avoid all kinds of threats. This is the philosophy that is based on ‘survival of the fittest …you have to look after number one…it’s dog eat dog out there’. This kind of purpose will eventually give rise to rampant competitiveness and the fear of not surviving will become synonymous with the fear of failing. This is the source of so much of our stress. A purpose of survival makes for a ‘small self’ and an egocentric existence during which we spend large amounts of time and energy ‘sniffing out’ what might threaten our survival. The purpose of survival shapes our intentions into ‘taking’ and ‘keeping’ to gratify and fortify our self. It easily shuts down care and compassion and it generates background anxieties based on the fear that others may survive and we may not. It is not a ‘happy making’ way to live. And yet it is probably the most common purpose whether people are consciously aware of it or not. It is built into the collective cultures of most societies. Backed up with some Darwinian philosophy and it can appear to be the brightest path to purpose.
And so it’s quite a challenge to untangle all the various influences around which we will shape our beliefs and upon which we will base our lives. But it does seem that a clear purpose is rather important and a major factor in the quality of our life. As Helen Keller reminds us, “Many people have the wrong idea about what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but fidelity to a worthy purpose.
Question: Which of the above purpose possibilities currently shapes your intentions and actions on a day-to-day basis.
Reflection: What is nature’s purpose?
Action: Finish the following sentence in ten different ways this wee. ”My purpose in life is…”
To be continued.
Written by our professor Mike George