Who am I?
Why am I here?
What do I want?
What do I offer?
Last week, when I attended an event about purposeful living, a group of 10 people meditated briefly and answered these same questions. We had agreed to confidentiality in advance, and for an hour, we took turns sharing our answers with each other. Since many in the group were strangers, I worried that fear would obstruct emotional vulnerability or honesty. But several people who were in their twenties and thirties described themselves as “lost” and “directionless”, so it was no surprise they were attending an event about purposeful living. At the end of the evening, I acknowledged their courage–they had faced potential judgment and ridicule just by speaking aloud their lack of direction in life.
Where do people find purpose?
-In the Matrix, Neo. (No, just kidding.)
Without a life mission or even day-to-day goals, I lose sense of progress and growth. I have several missions in life, and my primary mission goes something like “by calling artists together, I co-create egalitarian community.” This personal mission came from a vision I had of idealized society, so it’s a bit pie-in-the-sky. I have incorporated another life mission into the name of my homestead: Keithford. The name is an anagram of the phrase “for the kid”, and it speaks to the priority I place on making a home that is suitable for a child.
Purposeful living comes from all manner of origins, and I find it generally accompanies passion. Once, I dated a young man who told me that his perfect job was to be a massage therapist. He had paid to attend massage school and had discovered his life’s calling there. His face illuminated just talking about massage school, yet he dismissed his passion instantly when he finished sharing it with me. He had remained in his present, administrative job since attending massage school. Though I never learned the reasons for his choice, I felt sadness that his passion was unfulfilled.
What purpose is not.
I’ve also observed that purpose is confused with duty, nationalism, identity politics, social roles and obligation. Those can all be powerful motivators in life, but they are no substitute for self-selected purpose. When I was a teenager and first became mentally ill, I saw how my self-esteem was framed by outside influences inherited or imposed on me by familial ties, culture, and religious indoctrination. However, as an adult, I had an opportunity to re-evaluate those ties. I learned that a major transition in life, such as death or unemployment, created a pause in my routine and provided me time to examine the tacit, unspoken agreements I carried. What else could I do after weeks of feeling sorry for myself?
Your mission is unique to you.
When I started participating in groups that encouraged purposeful living, I often heard others share their life missions, and initially, I would laugh at or mock some of the missions I heard. I judged them as prosaic, uninspired, or too focused on a single issue. Even at last week’s event, my internal critic assailed a young man who wanted to help people in a way that made “tangible” changes in their life. He meant, of course, the sort of work people perform in organizations like Peace Corps: building schools, providing disaster relief, and creating infrastructure for communities.
When I heard that tangible change was important to him, I immediately thought that he was too young to appreciate the power of intangible help like emotional support in people’s lives. Regardless of whether I was right or wrong, that young man was passionate about his cause, and his passions shaped his personal mission. I silenced my inner critic; who was I to impose my values on another? I’ve learned that an individual’s mission is tailored to their needs, so by learning about their mission, I have a chance to divine the issues a person faces in life.
When you suffer loss, you have a chance to repurpose life.
One of my favorite cards from the Rider-Waite tarot deck is The Tower–it’s all about destruction of established systems and everything you hold dear. Yikes. In spite of the card’s cataclysmic appearance, it’s symbolic meaning also includes the ability to rebuild in the aftermath of ruin. For a while, I encountered The Tower so often in tarot readings that I merely moaned whenever it surfaced. My inner chorus sang a two-syllable verse, “Not again.”
I became an expert at failure; I mean, I learned how to recover from failure and loss. I discovered where my rock bottom lay– submerged in a stainless steel, institutional toilet bowl–and I learned that my “bottom” is unique to me. Different people have different thresholds, and I don’t judge people in the process of sinking (congratulations, you’re on your way to Rock Bottom). I don’t ever want to see The Tower again, but at least I’m not so afraid of loss that I fear to have dreams for the future.
Mindfulness, intention, and purposeful living are all trending right now. I wish that such social movements would endure, but what I witness is a high dropout rate within my purposeful living group. I can’t fathom the behavior. I’ve tried to think of a time in my life when I signed up for events but didn’t follow through. Once, I showed up because there was a smokin’ hot director at a volunteer art gallery…
Well, all I know for certain is the reason why I choose to participate and return. I keep showing up because sharing my mission with others reaffirms my values in a world that doesn’t always embrace them. Hearing the missions of other people personalizes their experience for me–otherwise, I might shun them or deem them inaccessible. For me, it’s all about connection.
Featured image: Path II by Tyler Thompson on flickr.com. CC license.
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