“For you came into existence not when you chose, but when the world had need of you.”
I stumbled upon this quote from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It is the second half of the sentence that struck me the most — the world had need of you. We’re talking, of course, about purpose — why are you here? It’s an important question that most of us have asked and at times struggled with.
Often our immediate answer is linked to our daily responsibilities — to nurture and raise our children, to provide for our family, to care for elderly parents, to look out for and support the team of people we work with. Or we may think of our specific job, which in turn becomes our identity — to serve children as a teacher, to protect our community as a firefighter or police officer, to run a successful company. But when these jobs end — we retire from teaching, we become physically unable to fight fires, we get fired as CEO – there is often a crisis of identity — what and who am I now? There is an understandable loss of purpose, which often leads to an understandable sense of grief and depression.
But some take a different approach to their lives: They seem to never ask themselves about their life purpose, question why they are here. They just do what they do because they do it. They have vague or strong desires that they strive for and make short-term goals, or they don’t, because long ago, after too many attempts and never succeeding, have given up on ever attaining what they want. They settle for that middle ground where I do what I do, which, on good day, is good-enough.
And then there are those who periodically ask the question of why am I here and find they have absolutely no answer. In many ways this is perhaps the worst case of all. Because they have asked the question, they already sense there ought to be more — to life, to what they do. Their struggle to find an answer creates an undertow of despair, a lack of direction. Often they find themselves drifting through life, killing time, distracting themselves from themselves. They often seem anxious, depressed, self-critical.
What is difficult about asking the question about life purpose is not so much finding the right answer but looking beyond the job, the responsibilities, the box of a life that we have built. It requires us to step back, way back, think big, and wonder about Epictetus’ idea, or Buckmister Fuller’s famous quote: What is the one thing that you can do that no one else can do because of who you are?
Heavy existential stuff, but important nonetheless. Because, while our life purpose may change over time, having a sense of purpose right now, in the present, gives us a focus and direction.
In Morita therapy, based on Buddhism, practiced largely in Japan, it is such purpose and passion that clients are encouraged to discover and build their lives around. When negative emotions run through our days and threaten to derail us, Morita, a psychiatrist active in the 1920’s and 30’s, encouraged his patients to avoid getting snarled up in unraveling their emotions, but instead to shift their focus to their purpose and passion, and then taking action. Don’t ask, why am I feeling this way, but instead ask, what do I need to do next? If you do what you need to do next, said Morita, especially if what you are doing is following your passion and purpose, you will, in spite of how you feel in the moment, build a purposeful and productive life, which in turn will help you feel better.
The key to uncovering your purpose is to shed what your parents or your culture says it should be. Instead tap into your own passions, those moments from the past and present, however small, that made you feel centered or complete. These are clues to helping you answer the question of why the world needs you.
Here are some questions to hopefully help you ignite your imagination, step back, and think outside the box of your everyday life:
1. Think about a time when you felt your life was going well. What is it that made this a good period in your life?
Here you want to push aside those first-round immediate answers — you were in love, you had a lot of money or a good job. Dig deeper: What about the being in love, the money or job, or something else that made your life good, fulfilled. What need was being met? Looking back on what you were doing, what were you contributing to the world? What uniqueness of you was being utilized?
2. What were your dreams as a child? Who did you want to be? What were those talents that you first discovered that you had?
The answers to these questions are not so much what you thought of as a child and more about what you are thinking about now when you think about your childhood. The fact that certain things now stand out — that you liked to draw or write, or that you remember wanting to be a doctor or police officer — gives you, like what made those good times in your past, clues about something deep inside that excited you then, and maybe excites you now that can make you feel more whole.
We are returning to questions about our pasts because as adults it is all too easy for these early and important dreams to have been pushed to the side of the road of our lives as we tangle with everyday adult life. As we march forward important parts of ourselves become lost or forgotten.
3. What would be an ideal week, year?
Again, push aside the quick answers of laying on the beach, all those wild and crazy, or not so wild and crazy things on your bucket list. Instead, fantasize what activities would give you a deep satisfaction, engage you fully. Don’t worry about whether or not you could actually do them — make a guitar from scratch, study birds, paint a picture, even read a hundred books — but see what it is about the doing of these things that is most enthralling, what they tell you about your desires and potential.
4. What would you want people close to you say about you at your funeral?
Here we are getting into values and the type of person you want to be, but also about contributions you ideally would like to make: What is it that you want others to appreciate and remember you for? Again don’t settle for the platitudes — the good husband, the beacon of her community — the superficial, the commonplace, but instead go for the honest and deep and ideal. Don’t censure yourself.
Once you found your answer, next ask yourself, what’s the gap between what you would like them to say and the path I am on now? What needs to most change to live this life?
5. Who do you admire?
It may be a grandparent or parent, a boss or mentor, or even a celebrity. The important question is why them? Drill down. What is it they have that you want to have? What about them, in terms of personalities and how they live their lives, that is admirable to you, that you wish you had and did? How can you bring those qualities, that way of living into your life?
And an exercise:
Free writing or cluster writing
Free writing is simply sitting down with a pad of paper and a pen, writing at the top of the page: What is my purpose or my life purpose? Now start writing down whatever comes to mind, stream-of-consciousness style. Don’t worry if you start by saying this is stupid or I have no idea. Just keep your hand moving, write whatever comes up. You’ll begin to get into the flow. As you’re doing this, if you find yourself writing something that gives you an emotional punch — like “teach others” — circle it, but keep moving.
After, say, 15 or 20 minutes you may hit a wall, finding little to say. Take a couple of deep breaths, and see if you can get a second wind and keep going. Usually in another 10-15 minutes you’ll feel that you are truly done.
Now look back on what you have written. You’re probably not going to see anything specific — like become a CEO of an energy company — but something more vague but important. Look at what you circle, look for themes that provide important clues.
Cluster writing is a similar process. Write the words, “My Life Purpose” in the middle of a page, circle it, and then let your mind brainstorm whatever associations that come to mind — calling, passion, teaching, helping others, children — whatever. Circle each word as you write, draw a line connecting them to the central words, or you may find some group together, for example, children and teaching, and connect the group to the core theme.
After a few minutes you will run down but likely have an urge to write something. Look at your groups of words, and let yourself spontaneously write. You likely will be pulling on many of these words, but also may come up with several ideas and sentences that are not only connected to each other but surprising. What you likely will be left with are themes, or broad categories of interest, of excitement, of calling.
Hopefully some of these questions and the exercise will get you started, make you curious about Epictetus’ message, and maybe stimulate even more brainstorming ideas or memories. No need to push the process, but instead pay attention and be curious.
Your next step, if your curiosity is aroused is to begin to explore. How to take these notions and vague but important ideas into your life. Pay attention to these brainstorms, think about teaching or children or running your own company, or using your base of skills and passions and experiment with ways to incorporate them into your everyday life.
Of course, the fact that you are reading this, the fact that you may be intrigued to consider these questions means that something is already percolating inside, that you are already at some level wrestling with the question.
If you are, you’re already half-way to your answer.