Some Musings About Purpose
It has been ages since I’ve written more than one post in a week. I wasn’t intending to write a second one this week. But then I read Profound Journey Tribe member Pat’s thought-provoking post about a purpose-filled retirement. Pat is thinking about whether it’s okay to be “self-indulgent and free of responsibilities” in her retirement, or if she needs a purpose.
As regular readers of Profound Journey will know, this is something I think and write about a lot. But it wasn’t until I read Pat’s post that I realized my thinking about purpose has changed quite a bit in the two-and-a-half years since I retired.
What I Used to Think About Purpose
I demurred in last week’s RAW NEWS update, when people referred to me as “focused” and “determined.” And yet I’ve never had any problem identifying with the purpose-focused synonym for those terms– “mission-driven.” Quotes, like this one by William Danforth, made me want to leap to my feet and belt out “Flower of Scotland,” the most stirring battle song I know.
“I dare you, while there is still time, to have a magnificent obsession.”
More than anything in the world, I wanted to make a significant, positive difference in education. It is up to other people and the passage of time to say whether or not I achieved that goal. For my part, I gave it everything I had and, until a year or so before burnout flattened me and forced my early retirement, I loved every second of my magnificent obsession.
While I certainly craved the feeling of using myself up for a noble purpose, it was the purpose itself that drove me. In a touchstone document that I wrote many years ago, I stated my lofty intention: “I will help people be true to their best selves.”
Then Purpose Got a Bit Complicated
For the first fifty-five years of my life, I defined purpose solely in terms of the contribution I could make to other people.
Unfortunately, clinging to a “common good” definition of purpose doesn’t translate well to retirement. As Pat writes in her post, “If I wanted to ‘give back’ (to others), how would I do it in a way that doesn’t reinstate my workaholic tendencies?” Good question, Pat. Good question. Quoting my guy, Kris Kristofferson, “I recognize the symptoms, girl. I’ve got the same disease. I just haven’t got a clue to how to cure it.”
The standard answer, offered to retirees everywhere, wasn’t doing it for me. I didn’t want to volunteer, thank you very much. After a lifetime of commitments, the very last thing I wanted, the very last thing I want even now, is another commitment.
Do I Dare Allow Purpose to Be About Me?
When I don’t know what else to do, I read. I’ve read a dozen nonfiction books and memoirs about purpose in the last half of life. If you’re interested, I’m happy to provide a list or compile quotations for a blog post.
Katrina Kenison, author of Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, does a nice job of expressing the dilemma of anyone in the midst of a life transition, whether that’s retirement or middle age. She writes,
“I wonder if the best days are behind me, and whether I can find a new sense of meaning and identity in the years to come. And I wonder if other women find themselves as confused and unsettled by this stage of life as I do; whether they, too, are asking: Shall I hold tight to what I know and do what I’ve always done? Or do I have what it takes to create something new in my life, to discover what is important to me now, and to claim that, become that? (pages 12-13)
Rumi put the question succinctly, as only Rumi could do — “And you? When will you begin this journey into yourself?”
My Purpose if You Ask Today
It took a while, but I ultimately decided that I’m comfortable giving myself time. My purpose right now is to live a creative life, and that’s why I’m living RAW NEWS. One of my favourite quotations of all time is on point here. Howard Thurman said,
Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive, and do that.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
If doing what makes us come alive is where we end up in life, that’s a laudable purpose that, I think, reverberates in helping to heal the world. It’s very possible that I will be happy with that, but I have to confess that I’m not sure yet. I’m excited by Rod’s talk of a body of work, as discussed in this week’s companion post. I’m still intrigued with the idea of writing another book.
A Useful Metaphor for Finding Your Purpose… Or Just Enjoying Your Life
Ten years ago, I travelled to the Omega Centre in Rhinebeck, New York to take a three day course with Tama Kieves. Tama was a Harvard-trained lawyer working for the biggest law firm in Denver. She packed it in to pursue her dream of writing poetry. Tama’s story, told in her book This Time I’ll Dance, was hugely influential when I was deciding to leave my Education Officer position to write my first book. I went to Omega confident that Tama would help me come up with a five year plan.
Instead, Tama explained that a creative life cannot be planned. She suggested imagining life as a journey where we have to jump from rock to rock in order to cross a wide, deep river. Sometimes, when standing on one rock, it’s impossible to see the next one. But then the water shifts a little and the rock is there. When you see it, Tama urges you to turn toward it and consider making the leap.
In practical terms, this isn’t anywhere near as woo-woo as it sounds. You simply watch for what intrigues you and then pursue it. For example, if the trailer for a new movie appeals, be sure to see the movie. Read the book on the subject that doesn’t normally interest you. In other words, follow the breadcrumbs. Or, in Joseph Campbell’s more poetic terms, “follow your bliss.” It will take you to enjoyment and, maybe, to a new purpose.