(Originally published in 2012)
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Is there just one purpose for our lives? And where does this idea come from in the first place?
Here is a partial answer. We have,
1. Some stellar talent or ability that others view as our great contribution to life. My hair stylist told me last week that she was born to do hair. She was emphasizing that she loved her job, was naturally good at it, and, at a deeper level, that it gave meaning to her life. It is quite easy then to say that this was her purpose in life. Maybe people have told you, “You are a born artist” or “You are destined to become a CEO”
2. A drive to find meaning for our lives. As humans we attempt to ferret out meaning in just about everything we do. Usually we hone in on a career or a compelling passion to express ourselves. We look for one focus to help us make a good choice and define our purpose.
But do we, like my hairstylist born to do hair, view our purpose as one thing? Just as the acorn is destined to become an oak, do the seeds of our calling clearly emerge as one thing?
Here are some problems and challenges about viewing our lives through the prism of one fixed purpose.
1. We risk becoming reductionistic.
We live in a shrink it down culture. We reduce complex issues to their simplest terms in order to wrap our minds around them. So we hear people saying, “Oh you are an introvert or a depressive or born to be an artist”. As if one adjective, personality category, or professional identity can capture the essence of a person. We are far more complex than that.
How can we reduce the wonders of the universe to one star or even galaxy? How can we boil down a person’s achievement or personal skills or passion to one manifestation of the self? Such reductionism violates the mystery of our person and makes our life’s journey too simplistic.
2. We can never predict the future.
When I was in my 20’s I would never have dreamed up the configuration of my present life. I was a boy living in a backwater small town in a country then called Rhodesia, limited by my cultural and religious heritage. Breaking frame and immigrating to the USA, training to be a psychologist, leaving the religious heritage of my childhood, having a child who was disabled, marrying Kris, having a global consulting business, embracing new friends, and moving to Mexico have influenced my evolution in ways I would never have dreamed possible. Was this what I would have predicted for myself in late middle age? In no way, shape, or form.
As with any journey we can plan on and imagine our destination. However, all the guidebooks can never prepare us for the surprises and challenges that we will actually experience when we are there. And so,
3. We cannot reduce the journey of a life to one goal.
The other day I met a staff person at the FedEx store that had an obvious passion for design. In fact I mentioned to her “You have the design gene in you.” She agreed with me and mentioned that she had been enrolled in a school of design but had to drop out for unstated reasons. Will she ever go back to that path? I don’t know. However, does that mean it’s the end of the line for her finding a calling in the years ahead? Who knows where the stream of her life will flow? She was obviously a multi-talented person. A whole journey lies ahead of her full of mystery and adventure.
So too you may have imagined one goal for your career and relationships. You invested all your energy and hopes into that quest. But life happened and you were knocked off course. So is that it for you? No more options? Well if you were destined to do or be one thing you are out of luck. You are then destined to live on the bench and never get back in the game.
The truth is that there are many options for our lives as we position ourselves to open up to new possibilities. But we only discover this truth when,
So if the notion of “one thing for our lives” is unworkable here are some preliminary ideas on how we can experience a sense of purpose in life.
How to Experience a Sense of Purpose
1. Remain flexible and learn to improvise. Surrender the illusion of control.
2. Realize that there is more to you than you can begin to realize.
3. Develop a sense that you are attached to something larger than yourself especially by serving the common good.
4. Demonstrate kindness to others and the self on a daily basis.
5. Listen to and live according to the prompting and poetry of the soul.
6. Embrace the adventure of life in whatever way it presents itself to us.
7. Be as fully present as we can be with others and ourselves.
8. Focus just a much on your ‘being’ than your ‘doing’.
How would you describe your purpose?