Misunderstanding purpose

May 28th, 2015

Why did you get out of bed this morning?

My guess is your answer involves more than, “I got bored with lying there,” or, “I had to go to the bathroom.” Okay, maybe you did have to go to the bathroom, but after that, you probably had some task to get done, right? Go to work. Get the kids off to school. Meet a deadline. Earn a paycheck.

What about beyond that? Is there a deeper purpose, a grand dream that shapes your life? Something bigger than putting food on the table and buying stuff to fill your house?

Last week I interviewed a man named Winston for a website I created called Corridor Characters. I thought I would be learning from Winston about microfinance for low-income entrepreneurs, and I did. But we also went much deeper than that. Before the interview, Winston had written out some life reflections to share with me. Here’s one of them.

We are all created for a purpose. I have come to believe it is that purpose which drives the best in us. It is that purpose which brings us back whenever we seem to be stepping away from achieving it. It is the purpose that has produced the great works of art, the marvelous advances in science and the great engineering achievements through history. It is this purpose in your life that will drive your highest achievement. Seek your purpose. Live it. Seek to be yourself. The puzzle maker needs you to be you and fulfill your purpose in order to complete the whole picture.

First of all, it was refreshingly unexpected to show up to an interview with someone who clearly put some time and thought into the more important messages he wanted to communicate. Especially since he was so genuinely sincere. But it was also helpful for me, personally, to be reminded of this question of purpose and how it affects my life.

Like most people, I have made some really dumb decisions in my life. But one thing I’ve discovered is that those poor choices are usually preceded by a feeling of aimlessness. The most dangerous times for me are when I am just coasting along, following short-term impulses and distractions or letting others direct my days as if the course of my life doesn’t really matter.

I get along better when I am guided by a clear, authentic purpose. I think Winston is right when he talks about the greatest human achievements coming from people who understand their life’s purpose and pursue it with gusto.

Misunderstanding purpose

But I've also learned that when we talk about purpose it’s easy to make two serious mistakes. The first mistake is to substitute someone else’s purpose for your own. In my conversation with Winston, he described the human family as a seven-billion-piece puzzle. Each piece is unique, and in order for the puzzle to be complete, each person has to be his or her authentic self.

Maybe you don’t believe in a “puzzle maker”, but the metaphor is still a helpful reminder that no two paths are the same. When we substitute self understanding and the courageous pursuit of our own lives for the apparent ease of following someone else’s purpose, what we really do is set ourselves up for long-term frustration and disappointment. Your life is yours to live. No one else should do it for you.

This is my biggest critique of a book/program like "The Purpose Driven Life." The author presumes to tell his audience that he knows the purpose of our lives. I find that to be naively arrogant. Still, people fall for it, because they hunger for purpose and haven’t yet learned that life is about discovering that purpose ourselves. We can’t buy a prepackaged version of it, no matter how much we want to.

The second major way we often misunderstand purpose is when we think it can’t change. This is where the puzzle metaphor may not be so helpful, because it conveys the idea that our purposes are fixed, locked into place by — you take your pick: God, genetic disposition, life circumstances, or even your own free will.

Reality is more fluid than that. Pursuing one purpose may lead you to a whole new calling you never anticipated. “The Lord (or the universe, if you like) works in mysterious ways.” It would be foolish to ever think you’ve got your future all figured out.

But if you can’t figure it out and no one can tell you, what do you do?

You wrestle with it. You keep asking questions like, What am I here for? What gives me joy? What drives me? What do I love? What does God want from me? What does the world need? What am I good at? How can I contribute? How do I need to grow to move my life in the right direction?

Not every day. It’s okay to coast a little and rejuvenate from time to time. As the Bible tells us, rest is sacred. And periodic wandering does the soul good.

But there is a difference between wandering and aimlessness. You can be aimless while following a well-defined trajectory. That’s what we call a rut.

Eventually, if you want life to be truly fulfilling, you’ll have to take hold of the steering wheel and wrestle with it. Get yourself out of the rut and onto a path of your own choosing. You may be in a completely different landscape than where you first started, but that’s okay. We’re never really lost anyway.

You can see more of Courtney's work at CourtneyTBall.com, or sign up to receive his weekly email, “Life and Depth.”

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