Living Without Purpose

October 04, 2016
Antonia Clews

Do you know what Your Purpose in life is? No? Me neither.

Do you have a sense of what your calling is, your gift, your raison d’etre, what you are meant to do with your life? No? Me neither.

Does it matter that you don’t know? No. Is there a sense that we should? Yes.

You don’t need to know what Your Purpose is, or Your Passion, to lead a fulfilling life.

There can be an inherent pressure in life through society, culture and parental ‘encouragement’ which becomes evident from childhood, that we should know what we want to do. What we want to be when we grow up. What we want to study. Where our career is headed. Whether we want marriage children etc. We should know. The implication with this, and I see it in many clients, is the sense that our life path should have a linear trajectory, aiming clearly at a nominated horizon. Parental messages about how one should live life marks our sense of what life should look like if we’ve been successful. This creates the push, the driver; so that for some, to not keep working for that destination (Purpose) would mean failure. That to not push means to be lazy. To not know makes us feel we are not applying ourself to something meaningful, or living life meaningfully.

Not only should ‘the path’ lead to a fulfilled ambition but it has an ‘upward’ trajectory which indicates progress. The career path is stepped and the ladder of life is marked by a succession of incremental positions that indicate cultural attainment; money, capacity and status. Where we are standing marks where we have come from and the next goal. It doesn’t seem to be an endpoint of arrival; there’s another step to take, another goal to establish. Where are right now is not enough.The rationale within the linear map is that the choices we make and the decisions we take throughout our life are measured. We know what we are doing, where we are going and who we are. We have certainty; control. We have not failed to make life our own; to take life into our own hands.

Purpose amounts to having a reason or point for something, or call it motive, motivation or having a goal. For many it’s about aiming for something that relates to ambition and aspiration. These are the tricky territories of our life agenda all wrapped up in one word. Purpose. Further to this is the sense that we not only need to have these but they are embodied in a deeper sense of what we are doing with our life as a whole. What are we doing in this beautiful planet of ours? What could be more challenging than answering that question?

And yet somehow there’s an implicit message in much of the self development literature that the way to have a fulfilling life is to find our true purpose. As if there’s a defining answer to our sense of self in life to be found in a single application of Pursuit and Meaning. If we align who we are with what we do and we know what we want to do; this is our Purpose.

Having purpose in life is one thing. Having a life’s purpose is another.

Meaning is something that is significant to us; it has essence, substance. We often know when something is meaningful because it has a felt quality. To that extent, we can define what is meaningful in our life. To me, this felt knowledge is more accessible than Purpose which has a quality of ‘seriousness’ focused on a worthwhile outcome or impact created through what we chose to do.

‘Life has no meaning’. ‘My life has no meaning’. ‘There’s no point’.These few words often indicate a profound sense of lostness or stuckness. Life may well have no meaning. This is the territory of philosophical debate and the basis of our personal belief systems. But ‘my life has no meaning to me’ belies the personal and felt nature of what meaning is. It’s subjective. Our meaningful life may lack purpose in the eyes of another.

If someone says my life has no meaning they may be saying things feel futile, pointless and they feel empty; without purpose.They may be describing that they feel of no use, unimportant and insignificant and that their actions are. That they lack agency and intention; motivation. They may also be saying they don’t care about anything anymore; don’t feel joy. This to me is the heart of an unfulfilled life; where we are disconnected from our own ability to care and therefore fulfill our potential as a human being.There is a relationship between meaningfulness and caring. This is our purpose. To connect, to engage, to care. It doesn’t really matter with what; it’s subjective. In research on happiness, it is most often defined through connectedness and relationship. Not achievement.

What we care about creates our agency and our contribution. When we stop caring we can lose incentive and direction. Because we don’t feel much. It is natural to stop caring about things we once cared about because we change and they may change and so our relationship with them changes. The resulting emptiness is a space which allows other things to draw our attention. This reconfiguration of a defined space is often when we feel we don’t know what we want and sometimes who we are, because our previous relationship with self and other and thing has changed. And therefore we may be experiencing a lack of purpose.

There will always be times in life when we lack purpose. I believe purpose is temporal. We find it we lose it. We find another purpose. It’s not the singular Purpose we may feel we should be finding.

We are led to believe that we can fulfilment if we find our true Purpose, passion or calling which has so far eluded us, but once identified will reveal an illuminated path in all its shining glory; a flashing neon sign ‘This Way’ overhead which draws us smiling in relief into a different kind of life where we know who we are what we are doing. What if our purpose in life is just to know what matters; is important to us and this is compass is enough to guide us in how and what we relate to and with? What if this clarity gives us enough sense of who we are to navigate, make choices and decisions which create a meaningful life? What if our beliefs around How to Live Life emphasised spontaneity, trust, valuing the here and now; rather the long view of what we need to achieve or obtain? How open are we to multiple paths, experiences and experiments? How okay are we if we are not in singular Pursuit of Passion or Purpose?

We want to feel fulfilled in life; a mixture of contentment or satisfaction with ‘our lot’, having realised some potential from within; having achieved or created something we wanted and having recognised meaning for ourselves. When we give something our full attention and are engaged this tends to make us feel happy. To understand what makes our life fulfilling we can reflect on some of these questions: What captures your attention? What do you value give attention to; however small? What matters; what do you care about, what do you enjoy, what are you interested by, who do you love, where do you find a sense of peace? What do you value in your life, in yourself and others?

Fulfilment may be easier to obtain than Life’s Purpose. Live knowing what matters to you, being you. Life isn’t linear.

We cannot all do great things with our life. But we can do small things with great love.

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