A year ago a close friend was lamenting the suicide of her 16-year-old nephew. In his crushing despair, the boy had hanged himself. “What a waste”, my friend said. “When my time comes, I hope that my death isn’t in vain.”
No one among us was ever meant to experience a merely commonplace life. Just getting by is not being alive — it is poverty.
I agree it is difficult to identify what we’re intended to do. But I do know in my bones that every living thing needs a sense of purpose or it cannot survive.
I am reminded of some Native American cultures where an elder who has been identified as someone beyond their purpose simply wills themselves to die. And when I worked for the railroad many years ago, I recall countless older engineers who simply lived for their work. But, one after another, when they were forced into retirement at 65, within a week or two of leaving their service, these perfectly healthy men were dead.
For human beings, purpose is everything.
And just making money, kids, is not a purpose and has precious little to do with the quality of any life. I laugh at the bumper stickers that read, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Just try taking those toys with you or cashing them in for a family that loves you.
Monetary gain is the ideal deceiver of a person’s true worth. The sticker should read: “Whoever dies with the most toys is still dead.”
So what’s the secret? How do we discover our true north? Well, ask yourself this one question: “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?”
When you finally arrive at an answer that makes sense of this question, then you will have found your life’s purpose.
While that discovery is no easy feat, of course, that new information becomes your jumping off point to greater things. Ralph Waldo Emerson held that, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Examining the fears that hold us back is key to identifying our purpose. Personally I have known the pain of loss. Without that knowledge I’d have no compassion for others.
All of us have a place in history. Whatever happens to even the smallest among us becomes a resource. Our humiliations, misfortunes, losses and gains — these are our contributions to a history of mankind.
When people tell me they’re unhappy, my first reaction is that only people with no purpose are unhappy.
I contend that what I am living for and what I would die for are really the same question. When I reach the end of my days and look back, I will know if my life had purpose by one simple measurement — whether I have lived in despair or not. If I have followed my heart, then I trust that I will have found and fulfilled a purpose. Hopefully a noteworthy one.
The final measure of a person’s sense of purpose hasn’t so much to do with where we are but rather in what direction we are headed. One of my favorite definitions of devotion is this: Love is not two people looking into each other’s eyes. It is two people traveling in the same direction.
That communal sense of forward momentum holds in itself a glorious sense of purpose. If we are only meant to just be there for one other person — for some that is purpose enough. I know personally many folks who are worth it.
Passion is your finest barometer for your purpose. Whatever it is in this life that excites you to do your best work, let it lead you to your purpose.
My friend’s lament that her nephew may have died in vain made me wonder about the absence of purpose in his life.
For me the greater sin would be to have lived in vain.