Purpose, Mission or Meaning, discerning Your Purpose in Life
For most people, the simple question: ‘what is my purpose in life’ never arises, and if asked, rarely gets answered. If the reason for this oversight is at least partly a result of a broader cultural confusion, then perhaps an in-depth discussion could be of some assistance in focusing the minds of those who are truly interested in examining this great question.
Perhaps you too have noticed that there is also a great deal of confusion in society concerning, not only the concept of ‘purpose,’ but with that, of ‘mission’, and also ‘meaning’. Although such concepts have a powerful relationship to each other, there are profound distinctions to be made between them. I routinely see people, including myself, causally mixing them up and substituting one for another in conversation.
But neglect or ignorance of these questions is not typical of certain Men’s cultures, one of which I participated in for many years, who regarded knowing and fulfilling one’s life-purpose to be essential men’s business, without which many unpleasant complications might very well arise in life.
‘Purpose’ is held to be of great significance in many men’s cultures because of its place within the deeper psychology of men, and subsequently, the negative effect that not knowing your purpose will probably have on your satisfaction with your life, and also, the probable impact such an oversight may have on your relationships.
Yet, surprisingly, a brief review of that men’s literature which I associated with indicates that even within the core instructions of that culture, the notions of purpose and mission are routinely conflated. Here’s a sample: “Admit to yourself that if you had to choose one or the other, the perfect intimate relationship or achieving your highest purpose in life, you would choose to succeed at your purpose…Your mission is your priority. Unless you know your mission and have aligned your life to it, your core will feel empty… You must return to carry on your mission.”
Presumably the author, as well as many other people, feel that the two concepts – of purpose and mission, are indeed synonymous. It is my opinion that they are not, and that that conflation or confusion can be seen as an important part of the overall problem, that of – the absence of a clearly defined ‘purpose’ in many people’s lives.
Why do I think that this distinction is an important one to make? Well, its value was recently demonstrated to me once again while talking to someone who was enduring a very difficult transition in his life. Eventually, out of a state of mutual frustration I asked him to please explain to me what his purpose was in life, in order to try to gain some perspective on what was going on for him. After he recited several noble impulses he had, I told his that the items he was citing were all other–oriented, and as such they constituted his mission, which is great but quite different from whatever his purpose might be.
So I asked again about his purpose but he couldn’t really answer that question with much conviction. I suggested that his purpose necessarily involves an answer to the question: ‘what are you living this life for,…ultimately, what do you want to get out of living your life, besides for all the ups and downs that are inevitable’?
It is possible that the reason his mission was not succeeding at this point was for that very reason – something deeper in himself was content to block the mission level, until the purpose level received the quality of attention that was needed for him to continue progressing with his life.
It’s my observation that however painful a situation is in life, if one is enduring it within the context of fulfilling one’s purpose in life, that makes all the difference to the amount of suffering and pain and frustration that we will experience.
By the way, it’s my observation that in psychotherapy and counseling we completely neglect this dimension of the personality, to the detriment of our clients. Mission, on the other hand, is frequently referred to (although not by name) (and ‘Reflection of Meaning’ is understood to be a very powerful form of ‘Influencing’ a client for their benefit). But ‘purpose’ is completely off the map, and for a majority of clients, that probably shouldn’t be!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most men that I knew in my old men’s culture never came close to identifying ‘their purpose’, regardless of how you define it, after many years of involvement in that culture. To be honest, I don’t know if the term was too vaguely or ambiguously defined for them to get a handle on it, or whether they just couldn’t understand how to lock onto the reality of it in themselves. But as the Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca once said: “When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind”.
In this essay I will endeavor to bring greater understanding, clarity and order to the subject. To do so I will primarily need to focus on the nature of “purpose”, the concept that seems to be the most misunderstood. It’s worth noting for those so inclined, that Buddha is quoted as saying: “Your purpose in life is to find your purpose, and give your whole heart and soul to it”. Well, that statement from one of the all-time Biggies should focus our attention!
What it Is, and What it Isn’t
Purpose refers to your raison d’etre, the very reason why you are living this life – what you demand or want to accomplish for yourself in this life. If your perceived ‘purpose’ can’t stand on its own, without depending upon a reference to external objectives or realities, then it is actually a goal or mission, but not your purpose.
Mission, on the other hand, refers to qualities or attributes or improvements that you may wish to bring to others. It refers to your ‘gift’, or, if you like, the particular ‘service’ that you can bring to your fellow man. It seems to me that one could lead a very great life based solely on a Mission: feeding the poor, healing the sick, or freeing an exploited population from some tyranny, come to mind as classic examples of Missions of great renown. But such a life based solely on Mission could also have a serious Purpose juxtaposed along side it which might indeed broaden the experience for the author.
So here is your next ‘Fortune Cookie’: “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction” – John F. Kennedy.
Meaning, while itself a very important concept in assessing one’s life, simply refers to events (or interpretations of events) which support (or defy) our intended mission or purpose. Ultimately, the reflection that is Meaning is a reflection of that which we ‘adore’. Adore, because even purpose and mission are implicitly dependent on something very deep within ourselves. The concepts of purpose and mission are both meaningless and empty if not in reference to the qualities or state which we are most interested in cultivating or advancing. Consequently you can’t really have a clear focus on your purpose in life without knowing what your core values are, what you worship, what you adore.
I suggest the terms ‘adore’, or even, ‘worship’, because they have some psychological and historical potency. More than the things or qualities that you merely ‘love’, we are now talking about the very thing, or the quality, or the state, that a person finds overwhelmingly attractive, compelling or distracting. In some real sense, that thing is your ‘god’, or your guiding light.
But it also stands to reason that such an insight into ourselves is also dependent upon our ‘knowing ourselves’. If we are confused about who we are, then answering the Purpose question is going to be a bit problematic, I would think.
Yet our sense of Purpose is also tweaked but something else again, something quite outside of ourselves – not only that ‘adorable’ quality that we may wish to intensify or cultivate within ourselves, but the question of whether life itself has some overriding purpose or agenda, of its own. An agenda that we may wish to, or even believe, that we need to honor.
Therefore, in getting clear about one’s purpose in life it may greatly assist us to come to a conclusion about what the overall ‘Meaning of Life’ is, or what is ‘the Purpose of Life’ – (growth, evolution, salvation, fun, pleasure, survival, or nothing at all, etc.). If we do so we may be assisted in dealing with what our purpose is in being alive within that mysterious matrix of life (that is: What is our individually identified purpose).
We also need to distinguish between purpose and the now popular notion of one’s ‘passion’. The current usage which I am familiar with points much more in the direction of one’s interests in life i.e. ‘a passion for ‘Gumbo soup’ or, a passion for ‘baroque architecture’, or a passion for ‘flamenco dancing’.
Socrates observed about his life: “As one man rejoices in improving his own farm, and another his own horse, so I rejoice day by day in following the course of my own improvement.”
Lastly there is the question of degree of commitment. Someone may have a sense that they are learning ‘some of this’ or ‘some of that’ in their life, but are not really committed to maximizing or prioritizing that vector of growth or evolution. It is not for us to judge anyone for such a disposition, but it does bear noting.
How Our Worldview Effects Our Understanding of Our Purpose in Life
As I mentioned earlier, one’s sense of his individual purpose in life is also likely to be reflective of his personal sense of the grand, universal, and overall “purpose of life” or “meaning of life’. If one is convinced that there is a discernible purpose or meaning to Life itself, that conviction will tend to influence or inform our own understanding of our our purpose for living life.
If, on the other hand, a person feels sure that the universe has no agenda for the participants within it (or for itself!), then the question of that person’s Individual purpose will likely have less consequence to that person. But such people would still often have the motivation or orientation of improving themselves, or furthering the development of their capacities. For example: to be a ‘good father’ or a ‘responsible citizen’ or a ‘creative person’ etc.
Below I will suggest a variety of hypothetical life scenarios which might usefully illustrate the interrelationship between the various concepts discussed above, particularly Purpose.
Surprisingly, I think, although purpose relates to personal or individual matters, the ‘individual’ could also be an institution which functions within a society. It might make things clearer if we examine such a non-human example first:
Take for example a major corporation with a bold ‘Mission Statement’. Many of us are familiar with corporate and institutional Mission Statements that say a whole bunch of things about how dedicated the organization is to serving their clients or consumers, or even society itself, and thereby improving the world by doing so (Coca Cola, Monsanto, Apple). Yet that same organization will often have as its legal requirement the “purpose” of maximizing the profits of its shareholders. That profit incentive is why it exists.
Such a mercantile purpose will often have nothing whatever to do with benefiting society, and is frequently in direct conflict with it. In such a case we can clearly see the difference between a mission and a purpose.
Back to the human side.
But first let’s consider someone with a strictly scientific worldview. If you were to ask a Scientific Materialist person what they valued most in life, they might say that they valued ‘the mind’ or perhaps ‘reason’. They might explain to you that human life could be vastly improved if more people took a more reasonable and less emotional or ‘irrational’ approach to life and its challenges. That person might have strong convictions that his life goal (mission) is to work with all his strength to create a better society, and he might take much satisfaction from a variety of developments and events that occur. But absent a metaphysical perspective on life, would he have less to be ‘purposed’ about, due to his ‘belief’ in his utter and impending mortality?
If an Atheist or Materialist or Mechanistic oriented person has the belief that life itself has no meaning or purpose, and if he also, because of that belief, that his life has no kind of permanence, or transcendental value, because, “when you’re dead, you’re dead”! it appears to me that there would be a more restricted or limited motivation to aspire to something greater; to become a more ‘evolved’ person. Evolve to what? One might ask? Evolve to where? The grave? To oblivion? So ascertaining one’s purpose seems to have at least hypothetically greater value or usefulness for those with a transcendent worldview.
Next let’s take the example of a person who could be described as a sensualist or a hedonist, and, who also doesn’t have a transcendent worldview. Such a person’s goals in life might simply be to experience a maximum amount of pleasure. He or she might even have a mission to share their pleasures with a maximum number of people, and even to heal many people of their dreadful anti-pleasure, anti-life or anti-sex biases. If asked, that person might suggest a purpose such as ‘becoming a better lover’ or something like that, his intention or goal to create as much pleasure as possible. Perhaps his motto would be: “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
Next, let’s examine the case of a person who could be typified as possessing a religious or spiritual nature. For many of these people, their ‘purpose’ is most deeply felt as the influence or agenda which trickles or flows through from a transcendent, spiritual, religious or ‘soul’ level of their being, or, from the dogmas or principles which represent that reality for them in their religion or spiritual paths.
Such a person ‘worships’ or values a relationship to some deity, or some exalted state of being. If serious about his ‘path,’ his or her purpose in life will likely be to ‘get closer to, or honor that deity’. His mission in life may (or may not be) to share his enthusiasm and love of his ‘god’ with others (‘missionary work’). Meaning may come to him as a reflection or confirmation of various developments, either within himself or in the outside world, which seem to support that agenda. His or her purpose in this case might even be understood by him or her as the core or essential ‘coding’ emanating from their creator to them- as the very quality that their creator is wishing to have manifest through their personality.
For the many Non-Dualists, Transcendentalists, Buddhists, Monists, Advaitists, Taoists and Fatalists out there who suspect or contend that at the deepest level, the notion that personal free will is indeed available to an individual is little more than a dubious egoic conceit, the possibility remains that their personality itself, that which they have apparently been bequeathed by the Power That IS, may indeed be their de facto ‘purpose’ – the movement to be just that ‘something’ or experience in this world that they presently are. As to their mission, the possibility also stands that whatever or whoever created or emanated them has a design or plan which it intends to accomplish through their personality, and is actively directing and empowering them to carry it to completion, impersonal and offensive as that may be to their egos.
I may be mistaken but it seems to me to be a little more difficult to work with the notion of one’s purpose in life if one doesn’t, at some level, know, intuit or believe that there exists a reality beyond the mere mechanistic or materialistic level. It is apparent to me that one’s ‘purpose’ is augmented by a sense that there is a metaphysical or transcendent quality and reality to human life that may offer benefits to a person, when and if it is respected.
Without an abiding Purpose, one could certainly still have a ‘mission’ and interpret events as having great ‘meaning’ even if one was oriented to a strictly materialist world view. Such a person may indeed work to become a better person as a matter of respect for his fellow man or himself etc., but would that person have as much to work with as someone who saw life as a learning or testing evolutionary opportunity, and who also wished to improve himself over the long haul?
I don’t know.
On the other hand, as Walt Evans humorously put it: “it may be that your whole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others!”
My observation is that many people seem almost constitutionally blocked from accessing the layer of self where this truth, about Purpose, naturally abides. It seems to lie ‘beyond the ‘Veil’ for many people.
In conclusion I can only suggest that if you wish to know your purpose in life, then delve into yourself with a commitment to discern clearly what you adore the most in this life and what you want to make of this incarnation. That will mean seriously concentrating on determining what values or qualities are most sacred to you, and then disregarding those things which come in second. And if that effort falters, you then can make it you life’s purpose to find out what your life purpose is, no matter what the cost or inconvenience to you. As Steve Jobs said about his role in directing the restoration of the Apple brand to prominence: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are”.