Many years ago, there was a very popular book making the rounds where I lived. It was called A Purpose-Driven Life, and every Christian woman (and many Christian men) I knew seemed to have their noses in it, soaking up every drop of wisdom from its pages.
The idea of a “life purpose” has been a thorn in my side for most of my life. Like many people, I grew up feeling that I was born to fulfil some purpose in life. I knew that I was here for a reason, and that my job as a human on Planet Earth was to discover and fulfill my Life Purpose–thus, validating my very existence.
It took me several decades of self-criticism and doubt before I came to a mind-boggling and utterly freeing conclusion:
I do not have a Life Purpose.
Yup. There is absolutely no point in my being alive right now, no grand plan that only I can fulfill, nothing even remotely special about me at all. And I couldn’t be more thrilled!
The Weight of Purpose
When people think about purpose, they’re usually thinking about what they should do, what great accomplishment they can pursue which will distinguish them from the countless other multi-celled organisms cluttering up the cosmos. After all, why build a hammer if not to hammer nails? Why build a bucket if not to carry liquids or other items?
When you apply that to human beings, you start looking at whatever you define as your creator (God, the Universe, Spirit, the Goddess) and think, “why did they build me?” I mean, humans should be at least as useful as a hammer or bucket, right?
And once you get into a utilitarian valuation of human life, the inevitable comparison to other tools is inevitable. After all, a broom and a bulldozer are both tools, but the monetary value of one is significantly higher than the other.
And when you start assigning value to people based on their usefulness (i.e., purpose), you’re opening up a whole mess of trouble.
A Human Being is Not a Broom…or a Bulldozer
So much of our Western culture is geared towards the commoditization of our humanity. We are educated to make ourselves more employable. We take care of our health so that we can work harder and not be a financial burden to our families (or the government). We often pursue careers, choose our clothes, cars and homes, even engage in hobbies all for the purpose of appearing more valuable to the outside world.
And when that value diminishes–when we lose the job, when our health declines, when we don’t get the scholarship–we feel the pain of it. If we are created to be of value, and we are only as valuable as the job we do, the clothes we wear, the possessions we own, and the health we have, what of those who do not posses these things? What value is the homeless person? The sick? The simple or mentally impaired?
This is a recipe for spiritual disaster.
We’re Not Human “Doings.”
The Taoists have a concept call “Wu-wei,” which means literally non-action or non-doing. Wu-wei is spontaneity or effortless action, a matter of going with the flow and being unselfconscious. According to Mark White, PhD, in his article in Psychology Today, “wu-wei is about knowing when effort is appropriate and when it’s wasted.” While you obviously have to exert some effort in life, other pursuits, like love and happiness, are not always served by trying harder. In fact, trying to achieve happiness, as we learned in The Science of Happiness series, is like trying to smooth a rippling lake by rubbing it with your hand.
I believe the same can be said for living a life of purpose. The harder you try to find your purpose in life, the more elusive it will be. (Again, probably because there really is no Big Life Purpose.)
Then Why Be Here at All?
Folks get really touchy when you come for the concept of Life Purpose. So much of our religious, psychological and social self-concept tends to be grounded in the idea that we are “SPECIAL.”
- God/Goddess loves me, so I’m special.
- My IQ is high, so I’m special.
- I have superior athletic abilities, so I’m special.
- I was born into wealth (or earned a great deal of money), so I’m special.
Why do we need to be special? When we look at life in terms of commodities–resources that are finite–then the need to be special is very sensible. After all, why waste precious resources on people and things which are not special? The more special you are, the more protection, resources and opportunities you deserve, right?
But what if there was no lack? Daring to be average is the ultimate sign of faith, in my humble opinion. The act of accepting yourself as you are, flawed and infinitesimally small, sends a message to the Universe. It says, “I know I am here for a short time, and then I will be gone. I know I will have what I need for as long as I need it, and then I will be gone. I don’t need to earn anything. I don’t need to dance for your love. I just am.”
The Freedom of Average
Michael Neill wrote a wonderful blog post called, In Praise of “Average.” In it, he writes:
In a world where everyone is trying to be exceptional, two things happen. The first is that nearly everyone fails, because by definition, if too many people become exceptional, the exceptional becomes commonplace. The second is that the few who do succeed feel even more isolated and estranged from their peers than before. Consequently, you have a few people feeling envied, misunderstood, and alone and tens of thousands of others feeling like failures for not being “enough”- “good enough,” “special enough,” “rich enough,” or even “happy enough.”
He suggests that, instead of reaching for these huge life purposes, we set out to have an “average” day in which we achieve modest success. String together enough of these modest success days, and you discover you’ve had a wonderful life filled with success.
I think the same principle can be applied to the Big Life Purpose. Instead of pursuing these insane, storybook goals, why not just set small goals and pursue them consistently?
My Small Goal List looks something like this:
- Learn something every day.
- Make someone laugh every day.
- If possible, help someone without asking for anything in return every day.
- Take some time for self-care every day.
- Try something new as often as possible.
These goals, in themselves, may not change the world. But they will change me. They will change my environment. And when I’m gone, I’ll know that my Small Goal List was a hell of a lot more potent than any Big Life Purpose I pursued at the expense of my own joy.