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.creek, small waterfall, many rocks 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.









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  1. Wow, more excellent advice Karen, thank you… I really like your description of finding purpose in your telling of crossing a wide, deep river jumping from one rock to the next. It sounds natural and intuitive to follow the way life leads using that method. It is kind of what has happened to me since my move to the country. I find things that interest me and go for it. As a result, I am now a YouTuber with a growing channel, a webmaster and a sound engineer for our church. My life is full and I do feel a sense of purpose for being here, for doing these things. The first rock was moving out here to the country, the second rock was joining the church, the third rock was taking on various tasks at the church that I have the skill for and so I am crossing the wide, deep river called life. I am happy – what more could one ask?

    1. Absolutely nothing more can be asked of life, Susan. Your curiosity and openness are giving you opportunities that you recognize and, as you say, go for! That’s really wonderful.
      I’m excited to see what your next rock will be and where it will take you. No rush, of course, but we know it’s coming and that’s one of the truly exciting things about life.

  2. Well, that all makes sense. 🙂 As a teacher, I wanted to achieve a lot and was very idealistic, trying my best to bring purpose and knowledge to my pupils and, as only I would, help them create a critical mind in which thinking and coming to their own decisions was important. No, that was not part of the lesson package. I also showed them amazing photos of my travels, somehow incorporated in the subject matter, wherever possible to stir their sense for adventure and expanding their horizons (just like what you are doing now with the art classes).

    But, I also had a passion, a desire, to keep expanding my own horizons and explore the world. So, I did. Reading your post, I thought back about my life and how I have always pursued the things closest to my heart. I have been quite successful at it, making me think “Was/am I selfish?” Also, living that life puts me in a more difficult position than most when it comes to current finances. But, yet again, if life is not challenging, than what is the purpose? 🙂

    Of course, I am simplifying things here. We all make our choices based on what is going on in our current lives and sometimes,, especially recently, that has meant for me: less freedom and more responsibility. But, there is a time and a place for everything. Whenever I am retired, I would like to find other purposes as well, especially that have to do with the creative nature of things. If only I would have more time, so many things can be achieved and explored – physically and mentally.

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      I truly believe that Howard Thurman had it right – that if you do what makes you come alive, you’re doing what the world needs. So, from my perspective, you’ve never been selfish in pursuing what is closest to your heart.

      I wish you all the time in the world, now and later, to keep on exploring what interests you.

  3. I absolutely adore that quote by Howard Thurman… it will go on my wall so I can see it every day. I feel so incredibly lucky to be living the life I have right now. I can pursue any interest, try and fail without worrying about losing my job, and contribute to the common good or just relax and read a book.

    This is my time and there are no do-overs. This is not to say that I feel entitled to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I have a husband, family, and friends to consider. But, I am careful to place a priority on what is important to me… on what makes me come alive.

    1. Hi Janis,
      Your comment has the feel of a mission statement. I am trying to stop myself from singing “Flower of Scotland” as I reread it.
      I know that sounds weird but having read the post, you’ll understand that I can pay you no higher compliment. What a wonderful place to be in your life. I’m finally starting to feel this way too, and couldn’t possibly be any happier.

  4. Hi, Karen – Like Janis, I also find the Thurman quote to be very inspiring. It meshes nicely with one of my long-time favourite quotes ‘Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’ (Arthur Szathmary) Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Another excellent entry Karen. I am really enjoying your latest discoveries and appreciate you sharing them. If I were going to slot myself anywhere I would put myself in the situation of watching for something intriguing which right now is pottery and writing. Pottery especially has bitten hard!

    1. Yahoo! I’ve been wondering how you’ve been doing, and if pottery work is all that you hoped it would be. I think we’re overdue a more lengthy chat. And also maybe an update to your tribe story?? No pressure and no rush. Just a thought because I know other tribe members would find your intrigue to be intriguing.

      1. A lengthy chat is always welcome! Anytime-any place. I have been thinking about writing an update and I will let you know when it is ready.

  6. Karen, It amazes me when we are so in sync on thinking through things and I love your additional thoughts on Purpose. The words that keep coming back to me these days are “live joyfully”. Lat year I bought a mug that said “find joy in each day” and I have my morning coffee in it most days. I think it brings to life for me the Howard Thurman quote – the world needs more people who have come alive! And scary serendipity, you’re the third time that quote has come into my reading in the last couple of months. A whisper has turned into a shout: Live joyfully, Pat!

    Thanks also for linking back to me. (That is one thing I’m working on learning to do!)

    1. I LOVE those moments of serendipity. Glad you’re paying attention to the shouting.
      I’m happy to have linked to your article. It was really thoughtful, thought-provoking, and worthwhile. Thanks for writing it.

  7. Karen, I came straight here from reading Pat’s post and your comment there. This is all giving me a lot to think about. I believe the most important take-away for me right now is to watch for things that intrigue me and pursue them. I’m still working full-time, so I can’t run off to some foreign land for months at a time, but I can try new hobbies, introduce myself to new people, write outside my comfort zone. Thanks for the inspiration and the assurance that I’m not the only one that is still struggling with “purpose” and “passion” at this late stage in the game when I thought I’d have it all figured out. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment, Christie. You are so definitely not the only one still struggling. I love our community; there are so many of us trying to figure it out, one leap to a rock at a time.

  8. Karen, once again you have written a post that is very timely for me. I love the insight you derived from Tama Kieves – a creative life cannot be planned, but rather involves noticing and turning towards those activities or opportunities that call out to you. I think I have mostly lived my life this way, but the rocks I hopped onto were career rocks, mostly.

    Now I am making my way across the river on different rocks – precious hours with my grandchildren, a trip to Europe with my daughter, writing a dystopian novel, setting up an art studio. . . .

    Retirement is grand.


  9. It sure is, I agree, with a grin almost as big as the one you’re sporting from your trip to Europe with Erica.
    I hope you’ll consider posting about your art studio. I love seeing the work spaces of artists.

    1. Haha, I will. I have a partly written post about it. But first I will be posting about Berlin. One thing I can say about my studio (which is still under development) is that it is a “work-a-day” kind of space. I guess by that, I mean plain and functional. I don’t have your talent for interior decoration.


      1. What you’ve got, Jude, is the studio space of someone who has skills and knows what she’s doing! I’ve long known that plain and functional is often the sign of a true artist 🙂

  10. The analogy of change being like crossing a river by stepping on stones as the path becomes clearer is one I’ve heard before, yet in this context it really resonated with me.

    I had great success in both my career and personal life because I saw 2 or 3 steps forward and followed them – not because of some grand personal design pursued with great passion. To see the concept now applied to pursuing a creative life in retirement is an AHA moment for me. It shouldn’t have been, but it is.

  11. It sounds like you’re being hard on yourself, Joanne. I understand the feeling. Like talking about differentiated instruction with tens of thousands of people and never having it occur to me that I might want to apply those ideas to my own life!
    Whenever it happens, the AHA moment is a good thing 🙂

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