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.






11 thoughts on “Useful

  1. Michael, forgot to say I’m sorry for the lose of your friends nephew. “No man is an Island”..sad most don’t see this till death. I believe your spirit lives forever and loves greatly.

  2. Feeling of travelling in the same direction. Everything you said I say YES.. your reading my mind with such perfect words in which I have difficulty to find.. but feel whole heartly. I will read through all the letters..but I’m going to skip to L in hopes it’s about love..but I’m sure it’s amazing anyhow.
    Tara 🙂

    • Tara, I’m sorry “L” is not about Love but I very much wanted to sidestep the obvious. Everyone writes about the great L-word as a knee jerk reaction to that letter. Instead I write about love in its various permutations I’m many of my other posts. I do appreciate your patronage. Best.

      • Thank-you for your comment back! Sidestepping.. makes sense.. I understand. I enjoy how you think and was only hoping a dive deeper with love in the letter L. Yes, I am seeing your thoughts on love touched upon in your work here. Inpatient I can be with time restricted moments, but I will read through to see/feel the broader picture… the little pieces of the whole.

        Thank-you so much, very nice to come across your site and your simple words of the heart.
        Tara 🙂

  3. Such a great post Michael. I hope many more people read it. It is so wise. It may be difficult to identify one’s purpose. Not all are intended to become ‘great’ in the eyes of others and this is just fine. But if one can be a good friend or partner, reach out a helping hand to those who need it, look at the stars and be grateful, delight in a child’s play, the smile on an elderly person’s face, then all is good. Just be yourself. Be useful in some way. “Don’t live in vain’. I loved the quotes.

  4. Michael,

    What an insightful post. I feel my purpose is writing to leave something behind after I am gone. I am not afraid to stick my neck out. I know not everyone will like what I write, and that is okay. I consider myself happy, although I am always strapped for cash and wondering how I will pay all the bills and keep a roof over my head. These things can weigh on a person. I do live way below what is considered the poverty level, but I do have something to offer and am optimistic. I would never just give up. I wish I could talk to everyone who contemplates suicide because this is really no answer at all to the problems you may face. It is hurtful for the ones left behind and you are taking the easy way out. Everyone has to find something to do that is worthwhile. I feel bad for the ones who have no passion in their lives.

    One set of my grandparents were the way you describe. They simply went to bed one day and decided they had lived long enough. I still can’t understand this way of thinking and it’s been years since they died. My mother’s second husband committed suicide on her birthday. She never talks about it except to day he was a good man. All of us were grown and out of the house when she married him. We couldn’t understand the man, or why he would do such a thing. None of us liked him, but that was beside the point. I’m sure my mother grieved for years. The only thing I can think of is that he was a very unhappy man, maybe unhappy with himself.

    Thank you for a beautiful post Michael.


  5. You did an excellent job of explaining how important purpose is. I have always thought without hope people have no meaning and don’t wish to live, but I can see how hope and purpose go hand in hand. I too, have experienced great emotional pain in my life. There are those that think I am crazy when I say I wouldn’t go back and change it if I could. Only those who have been through it understand, that if you embrace it, it will change you into a better person with more empathy and compassion for others. Let’s get our young people involved and focused on someone or something other than themselves. Thank you for this article.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. Yes, hope is the key ingredient and there is much to be said in promoting that virtue in our youth. And in some prickly older folks I know as well. Your comments are to refreshing and welcome. Thank you.

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