21 March 2007


One of the reasons that there are so many religions in the world, is that most people feel compelled to look outside themselves for a purpose to their lives. Religions claim to reveal a person's "true purpose in life." But why do people feel the need for a "purpose" in the first place?

The University of Minnesota sponsors a "Purpose Project." It is oriented toward helping people deal with the phenomenon of prolonged longevity. According to the Project:

Purpose is that deepest belief within us where we have a profound sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. It is the quality or thread we choose to shape our lives around. It is a source of deep meaning and vitality.

According to author and speaker Richard Leider:

There are three hungers that people are trying to feed throughout their lives. The first is to connect deeply with the creative spirit of life. Sooner or later, most people come to recognize that there is some sort of creative energy that infuses all of life. They feel a hunger to touch that energy and to be touched by it. That doesn't mean that you have to be a creative person in a classic sense-to make your living as a painter, a dancer, a writer, or an actor. It could mean an experience as universal as bringing a child into the world, or helping to nurture and shape a life. It could mean finding ways to infuse the workplace with more creativity and more playfulness.

The second hunger is to know and express your gifts and talents. The people I have met in my 30 years as a career counselor are always absolutely sure that they have some unique talent. They may not know what it is yet. They may not know how to express it. It may have nothing to do with how they earn a living or what they do at work. But they know that they have something within them that they have to contribute. And this feeling lasts throughout your lifetime: The healthiest seniors I've met continue to explore their gifts and abilities, long after they've left the workplace.

The third hunger is to know that our lives matter. Everyone wants to leave behind some kind of legacy, some kind of personal mark. It doesn't have to be great or magnificent. But human beings know that at one level, we each have a own unique thumbprint, and we all want to leave that print behind for others to see that we've been here. We can be successful, make a lot of money, reach a certain status, but it will be success without fulfillment. Fulfillment comes from feeding these three hungers.

The last hunger--wanting to know that our lives matter--appears to be the motivator for many young people who undergo religious conversion, or who perform acts of seeming desperation. Muslim suicide bombers and religious cult members who abruptly cut themselves off from their former lives, are examples of people driven to do something that "makes a difference."

Here is an interesting exercise from Steve Pavlina, to find your "purpose:"

1. Take out a blank sheet of paper or open up a word processor where you can type (I prefer the latter because it’s faster).
2. Write at the top, “What is my true purpose in life?”
3. Write an answer (any answer) that pops into your head. It doesn’t have to be a complete sentence. A short phrase is fine.
4. Repeat step 3 until you write the answer that makes you cry. This is your purpose.

That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a counselor or an engineer or a bodybuilder. To some people this exercise will make perfect sense. To others it will seem utterly stupid. Usually it takes 15-20 minutes to clear your head of all the clutter and the social conditioning about what you think your purpose in life is. The false answers will come from your mind and your memories. But when the true answer finally arrives, it will feel like it’s coming to you from a different source entirely.

For those who are very entrenched in low-awareness living, it will take a lot longer to get all the false answers out, possibly more than an hour. But if you persist, after 100 or 200 or maybe even 500 answers, you’ll be struck by the answer that causes you to surge with emotion, the answer that breaks you. If you’ve never done this, it may very well sound silly to you. So let it seem silly, and do it anyway.

We are driven so strongly toward a purpose--if not consciously, then sub-consciously--that even the most jaded and cynical individual is susceptible to "the pitch," if presented correctly for that person.

If you are religious, your purpose is decided to a certain degree by others--founders and shapers of your religion. If you are not religious, but are compelled to find purpose, consider this idea from the Purpose Wikibook:

Given that there is no detectable purpose pre-designed into life or the universe, then, if we must have one, we must adopt a surrogate.

To my mind, the only viable option is to support life’s continual evolution and focus upon helping it to achieve an omnipotent ability. Such a purpose is universal and rational; it is a purpose that will last as long as life itself lasts. It accommodates the whole of life, and shows that we care about more than just our own well-being. It declares that we value life for its own sake and think little about the death that must follow, taking it simply as the price to be paid for living.

It should be obvious that such a purpose--like all stated "purposes"--is susceptible to manipulation, distortion, and abuse. Yet, as humans, we are stuck with the need for a purpose, but are given no completely trustworthy formulation of what that purpose should be.

Steve Pavlina's method above reminds me of an interesting exercise utilised by the late John David Garcia, which he called "autopoiesis." To summarise the method, a person will ask for a solution to an important question. The person will then discard the first, automatic thought that comes into the mind, and wait for other answers. The person will most eventually recognise which answers are relevant and useful. It is important to find a quiet place, and have plenty of time available. Garcia taught autopoiesis as a group exercise, which does add an element of expectation that a solo exercise may lack.

The salient feature of mainstream western existence--within academia, as portrayed in the media, and as experienced around the many coffee machines and water coolers of my life--is a lack of meaningful purpose for most westerners. That may be a partial explanation for the merely feeble correlation between affluence and happiness.

Young westerners are fixated on wealth, comfort, and fame. If their lives do not provide these things, it is easy to turn to mind altering chemicals. The trend toward an increase in narcissism, combined with an increase in binge drinking, and extreme drug use, suggests that rather than seeking a deep and meaningful purpose in life, young westerners are looking for escape from unpleasantness.

A later post will discuss the relationship between political activism, religious activism (including terrorism), and the youthful need to "make a difference."

Image Courtesy of Journeys With Purpose

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Blogger Michael Anissimov said...


Wednesday, 21 March, 2007  
Blogger Audacious Epigone said...

The trend toward a parallel online universe is another manifestation of the ennui a materialistically abundant Western life brings.

Games like WoW allow people to take up a purpose greater than themselves, engaging in an epic struggle for survival, glory, etc.

Thursday, 22 March, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Good point, C41. As virtual reality and mirror world technology get better, more people will opt for a parallel online life to achieve meaning and purpose, and to avoid unpleasantness.

As long as they are not neglecting their children, or endangering their means of livelihood, online escapism is better than chemical escapism or real world behaving badly.

Friday, 23 March, 2007  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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