What is Purpose?

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I’ve read and thought widely and deeply (you can be the judge on how successfully) on how one can live their best life. This pursuit seems important now when we seem to be focused on so many of the wrong things. We seem consumed as a society by division, tribalism, materialism, and distraction. Our world makes it easy to feel reactive and out of control.

Enter purpose. Many writers have discussed how best to live life. Suggestions include everything from tactics designed to help you accumulate wealth, become more fit, become more efficient, become more popular, and become a better leader. These topics add value, but what is it all for? We humans have a desperate need to make sense of our world and purpose provides us meaning an context. It also provides us the motivation to persist in positive action despite incredible resistance.

History give us many examples of people who had a singular purpose and contributed to the world because of it: Joan of Arc, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela to name a few. Purpose can also be broader and people can even have multiple purposes or roles. Aristotle put it broadly as  “The goal of man is the active exercise of the soul’s faculties in accordance with excellence or virtue…. ” More recently, Steven Covey described our chief aims as being “to live, to learn, to love, to leave a legacy” (Covey et al., First Things First at p. 45) and urged us to define our chief roles in life and determine our chief aims for each one. (Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, generally).

The point is this, though: Get outside of yourself and do something bigger than you and for someone besides yourself. As Victor Frankl stated in Man’s Search for Meaning:

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it really did not matter what we expected from life, but what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly. Our answer, must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 76-77 (Beacon Press, 6th Ed.).

And now, my purpose at the moment, is finishing the ribs that I am grilling and getting ready to see my family who have been out of town all week. As a result, I have to run. However, before I do, let me recommend that you read Man’s Search for Meaning, if you have not done so already. While it is a short book it is poignant and full of insight. Be looking to discover what Frankl calls “the last of man’s freedoms.”

Inge Johnstone

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