The Act of Finding Purpose

We define purpose as “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”

I’d like to believe that most of us are driven by the desire to live a fulfilling life. We want to be able — at the end — to say “I left my mark on this world”. Just to be clear I’m not currently dying, nor do I have any intention of doing so anytime soon, but you never know. Life is crazy: Chock full of extreme highs and lows, punctuated by long periods of absolutely nothing interesting at all. So, I thought I would share my own thoughts on why we are all searching for some meaning in it.

As I moved through my late twenties into my thirties and forties (you don’t realize but these years go FAST. Too fast. Light-speed fast), I began to ask myself questions like:

  1. ‘What will people remember me for?’
  2. ‘Will I be remembered at all?’ (This one, for whatever reason, is my biggest fear.)
  3. ‘What legacy am I leaving behind for my child?’ (After 14+ years of shared custody, parental faux pas and total disasters, will my son be proud of me and what I have done after I’m gone?)
  4. ‘Did what I accomplish in this life make a difference, or did I just occupy space?’ (I’ll refer you here to question 3, but also add that I hope, despite all my failures, I’ve helped someone else not make the same mistakes.)

I am sure it’s my Ego asking these questions. Certainly the same existential crises have plagued thoughtful minds for as long as we have been conscious and spiritually aware beings, haven’t they? Asking for a friend.

For me, I believe the main catalysts were likely my anxiety-induced hypochondria (and subsequent constant fear of having an as-yet-determined though no doubt terminal illness), the birth of my son, my eventual divorce, and the custody battles that would follow.

But why does it matter? Why do so many mid-lifers ponder these things?

Recent research shows that a newborn baby is not a fully conscious being until they reach five months of age. They are driven by the physiological needs to eat and sleep and grow. As the child is soothed by the warmth of the mother’s body, calmed by the thrumming of her heartbeat and protected by her warm embrace, neural synapses mature as the being becomes more aware. During this period, it’s predominantly instinct that drives purpose.

Toddlers wobble on constantly growing limbs — bumping into this and that — and as happens so often throughout life, fall down many times before they learn how to stand on their own. Navigating a limited and protected world, their primary purpose is to become self-sufficient. Delicate and curious, their survival becomes the parent’s purpose.

Starting as early as elementary school, there is a constant reinforcement of the social constructs that make us part of the greater whole. We learn what it means to be a responsible member of society. Though the lessons become more complex through the years as our education progresses, the purpose remains the same: To ensure we learn and grow emotionally so we can contribute in some meaningful way.

As we achieve these developmental milestones, we do so with no real clarity of purpose. We are following instructions, memorizing and reciting, and becoming habituated. Guided by parents, teachers, friends and family, or clergy if we belong to a religious group, we are — in this new ‘always connected’ world — influenced by that to which they allow us exposure.

Eventually, we are expected to put all we have learned into practice. We complete our higher education, choose a career — Rock Star, check. — find a spouse or life-partner (hey, even good people make bad decisions sometimes, don’t judge me), and procreate. The results of the latter turned out far better than I imagined.

I suppose as parents we are never really ‘done’ being parents. But there comes a point where you are no longer needed. Not your bank account necessarily — that will always be fair game — but your protection, advice and guidance. And so, as you focus on yourself again, you realize that you have absolutely no idea who your ‘self’ is anymore. You have no damned idea how you got here, or what you are supposed to do now.

The lucky ones have settled comfortably into their white-collar careers, padded on all sides by cushy over sized bank accounts and the security that comes with not having to duct-tape-and-trash-bag their car window closed, or donate blood plasma so you can afford to buy groceries. I’m not knocking plasma donation, there is a real need for blood and blood products these days. You should donate, even if you don’t need the money. Hell, if you don’t need the money, donate that to a worthwhile cause too. Message me, I’ll give you my routing and account numbers.

I think it’s a safe assumption that most people have, at one point or another, asked themselves similar questions. It seems to me an inevitable part of the human experience to wonder if all we have done is enough. Whether it be in our interpersonal, professional, or romantic relationships, we — as long as we aren’t insufferable narcissists — question the results. Why wouldn’t we do the same for the legacy we leave behind?

The first step must be to figure out what is important for the greater good, not just ourselves. Whether you believe in climate change, gun control — or another cause-du jour — simply caring is not enough. Having the conversations is just the beginning. We need to get off of our collective asses and actually DO something.

And don’t do these things for the sake of being remembered or praised. No one needs a 6-foot bronze statues carved in their likeness erected in front of a sports stadium. No, you don’t. Really.

In my evaluation, I realized the questions I was asking were selfish. I let it become all about me. My ego, my fears, my needs.

Do for those that can’t do for themselves. Volunteer at a hospital. Work with your local animal shelter to find loving homes for the beautiful creatures that have been abandoned. Work within your community to make it a better place for those that come after you. Start the conversations about the things that matter, then take action. You find true purpose when you take ‘self’ out of the equation.

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Jonathan Chatfield

Jonathan Chatfield

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I am just one primate, in a world of billions. I have thoughts, dreams, and opinions. I have fears and reservations. I will share them all, for better or worse.