Wandering, minimalist writer

Losing Purpose

Purpose. It’s that inner sense, that internal guidance, that provides a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to go through the day, to live. Living without purpose then is not truly living; living without purpose is instead going through the motions, it is pretending to live, all the while wasting a life.

Much of my life has been guided by circumstantial purpose. As a father at the altogether-too-young age of 19, the next 23 years were defined largely by the purpose of children. Despite my many failures, I was motivated by an intrinsic desire to do what was right for my children. At the still-too-young age of 38 I also assumed the role of caregiver for my critically ill wife. This role continued for the next four years as she heroically fought a losing battle against cancer. Coincidentally, these twin purposes overlapped for four years, frequently leaving me frustrated and torn between obligations, but never without a deep sense of purpose. Over the course of six months though, between July 2012 and January 2013, I lost my wife to cancer and my youngest son left high school and started working full-time out of town. I lost my purpose.

Recent months have found me flailing, as I frantically try to avoid going under. Crushed by grief and suddenly without purpose, I am lost and unable to choose a course. Lacking a sense of purpose I have no direction, but just attempt to endlessly tread water. It is exhausting.

As human beings we naturally aspire to make our experience more comfortable; we do not, however, need comfort, but we do need purpose. Purpose is much more powerful than comfort. Family and friends attempt to be supportive as they witness my downward spiral, but they cannot provide me with purpose. Purpose must be internal, it must arise from deep within, and it cannot be given or manufactured.

This morning I read an article about living in the rat race. The writer noted how it was the purpose of supporting his children that helped him persevere for some years, but once his youngest child was grown he decided to step off the treadmill. He now chooses to live life on his own terms, and in doing so has found a sense of purpose. (My paraphrase of his story. Check it out for yourself here: Choices to the rat race.)

We often assume we cannot do something we have never tried, or that we will (or will not) like something we have never experienced. In reality, we do not know until we have the experience. Consequently, we too often go through life with untested core assumptions. In recent years I have been periodically implementing lifestyle experiments to test whether an assumption in indeed valid. The results have sometimes been surprising.

Lifestyle experiments are interesting, but they do not by themselves provide purpose. Moving forward can sometimes be its own therapy though, and purpose can be discovered in unlikely places. Safe and sane choices are not working, but are instead leaving me wasting and stagnating without purpose; risky and scary choices may or may not work, but at least they will propel me forward. Forward motion at least brings with it the possibility of again finding purpose.

Published on 4 March, 2013 at Cambridge, New York USA