What Gives Life Meaning and Purpose?

The $64,000 question for sure. Are we born with a purpose, or do we discover it as we mature and evolve? First, let’s define the word purpose. The Cambridge Dictionary explains that is about taking an action or the reason something exists. Other words that come to mind are intentionality and motivation. What do you do ‘on purpose,’ with conscious determination, rather than mindlessly and impulsively? Perhaps the first thought you have as you awaken each morning is that you will treat everyone you encounter with kindness and respect. That could be your purpose, at least for that day. You could call that intention your “marching orders” that guide your behavior.   

Another way of looking at purpose is our ‘why.’ An example is someone who desires to make a lot of money. If you were to ask them why they want to do so, a response might be that they grew up impoverished and they want security and stability. Another person could say that they want the freedom that being prosperous could afford them. It isn’t the object or experience that people want, it is the meaning they place on it. 

A classic book, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning explains “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” This was a man who was the sole survivor in his family who lost their lives in various concentration camps during the Holocaust. He made a conscious decision to live through trauma with grace and a new found purpose. When all he had was lost, he shared this wisdom; “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  

It isn’t necessary to experience hardship to find purpose although it can certainly emerge from tragedy:  

 MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) was founded on September 5, 1980, in California by Candace Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver.  MADD’s mission  is to end drunk driving, help fight drugged driving, support the victims of these violent crimes and prevent underage drinking.  

 was created in 2008 when six-year-old Sara Burke died after a diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor. Her devastated family found a new purpose by founding the organization “Sara’s Smiles Foundation is committed to helping children who are battling cancer live every moment to the fullest. Sara’s Smiles Foundation believes that children can be empowered by taking an active part in their experience. We believe fear can be eased by helping children and their families better understand their journeys. Sara’s Smiles offers resources that not only educate, but also create a positive, personal environment. 

A child decided to be a caregiver since she witnessed her parents doing so while taking care of their elderly mothers at the end of their lives. At the time, she hadn’t consciously thought to emulate her mother and father, but in retrospect, in adulthood she recognized that nearly every career decision she made led her to become a professional caregiver. She gleans gratification from her role and sees it as a calling and what she was born to do.  

Another description of purpose is that it impacts the world in a positive way. It may be something as simple as putting a smile on the faces of strangers or as essential as saving lives. World Central Kitchen is the brainchild of Chef Jose Andres who responded to the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti with food for those impacted by the devastation. These days, anywhere there is a humanitarian crisis, Andres and his team are there.  

A purpose often brings gratification to the giver and gratitude to the receiver.

On a 1-10 scale where are you with regard to living your purpose? You may feel pressure to identify it without having a clue what it might be. It is a journey that could begin with pondering what brings you joy, what lights you up, what connects you to people in a meaningful way? When you are engaged in certain activities, do you lose track of time? Full immersion in tasks, whether they are related to work or play, would be a clue. When we are involved in self-exploration, we can uncover our true identity  

Some notables say it well.  

“If you have a strong purpose in life, you don’t have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there.” – Roy T. Bennett  

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” – Pablo Picasso  

“Your work is your love made visible.” – Khalil Gibran  

“The things you are passionate about are not random, they are your calling.” – Fabienne Fredrickson 

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