Are you searching for a purpose in your life?
“What is the purpose of my life?” is a question that has come up in my life a few times. I remember that when I was in High School I had a long list of all the things I did not want in a career/job, but I had no idea what I wanted “to become”. I chose a line of study based on a comment by a friend. I chose my future based on friendship with no thought to purpose. When I was about 28 years old someone I’d known as a toddler and we’d been confirmed together asked me to join a study group. The people in the group were all about the same age and were questioning what to do with our adult lives. It raised some useful questions but I continued in the career I was following, because finding someone to settle down with was my main focus. Although I enjoyed the work I was doing, I began to question the value of working for a mining company that removed limited natural resources from our earth. When I was offered a retrenchment package at age 42, I definitely wanted to change the direction of my life and do something more meaningful, something that “gave back to society”. My search for purpose intensified seven years later when everything else I have build in my life began to give way.
My search for purpose has been sporadic. I have met people who have been more determined to find a purpose to their life. And, I have the impression, speaking with people and looking at social media, that most people think there should be a purpose to their life although it appears to be elusive. A lot of advice around happiness and work satisfaction seems to revolve around passion and purpose. This adds to a demand in people to find their purpose.
Yet, I don’t often meet people who honestly tell me that they are living their passion or who have found their purpose in life. The advice provided by the people considered as experts or gurus does not provide a paint-by-numbers guide to finding your purpose.
The first three stages of our life are very obvious and the transition to the next stage is marked with great occasion.
Our first purpose in life is to grow into our body. A baby cannot survive alone, it needs adult care. It can’t eat by itself, or forage; clothe itself and its immune system cannot yet prevent illness.
Then, at the change of teeth or when we touch our opposite ear with our arm across the crown of our head, our purpose changes to growing into our thinking. The event marking this transition is usually the child’s first day of school. Our memory is like a sponge at absorbing information and the foundation of all that we will learn in life is laid by what we absorb into our memory. At around the age of nine the child begins to have thoughts that are not the result of what is heard from parents, teachers and adults in its life. The child begins to have independent thoughts of possibility. Because of a lack of knowledge and experience these thoughts are laughed off as fantasies, but we can detect the purest form of possibility thinking.
The next transition is dreaded by many parents and is marked as an important transition in many cultures. This is when the purpose of life becomes the growing into our emotions. Physical and hormonal changes are apparent, but the purpose is coming to terms with our emotions.
As we appear to begin to master this purpose, another event happens in our lives, an event we are externally oblivious of. Around the age of eighteen the moon returns to the very position in relation to the rest of the starts as it was at our birth. We see the effect of the moon on the oceans of the world and neglect to think how it may influence us. Every time the moon returns to our natal position we feel an impulse to start something new. It is not a surprise that this first return coincides with choosing a direction of study that will lead to a career.
Shortly hereafter and as we master the growing into our emotions, we are “given the keys to the door”. This event is viewed as the end of the stages in our life; we are now an adult and should get on with living until we are old and die. This is far from the truth. The picture created by life up to this point suggests that our entire life may be divided into stages of seven years.
Our life purpose changes every seven years. Even when we have a passion this adapts to this change.
Once we “have the key to the door” our purpose is to grow into our limitation. We feel limitless, able to achieve anything. We are adventurous, travel and try many different things. We find that almost everything we set our mind to is achievable and success comes readily. People who are going to become business people usually make and lose their first million before they are twenty eight. By the end of this stage we usually feel “ready to settle down”; begin to “work on a career”; “have a family”.
After the age of twenty eight things seem more difficult to achieve and success comes slower. Our purpose changes as we grow into our place in the world. This is often the most productive period in our lives: our income grows most rapidly, we accumulate our worldly possessions and we nurture our own family.
Once we are established, our purpose changes to growing our social conscience. It coincides with the next time the moon returns to our natal position and a new impulse is born.
I had a boss once who told me what he planned to achieve by the age of forty, because, he said, after forty your career and life plateau and you don’t achieve much more. The end of this stage of our purpose, as we approach the age of forty two is often marked, in Western Society, by what is termed “the mid-life crisis”. With the development of our social conscience we begin to question the purpose of our life up till now; we question the pursuit of career; and wonder at the purpose of all the material accumulation. The knee-jerk reaction at this process of questioning is to do more of the same. Some people trade in their family for a “younger model”, buy a bigger house and a fancier car. Because this is no longer the purpose of life this new excessive accumulation feels purposeless and empty – hence the title “mid-life crisis”.
When our life purpose is out of step with society, we experience a life crisis. But our life purpose is not in crisis.
With the development of our social conscience comes a new perspective on the world. We see people differently and this usually comes with a desire to give back into society, based on a sense that our life up to this point has been about taking from the world. Often, this point in life marks the need to find “purpose” in life. Looking back, our life appeared to lack purpose, we were selfish.
But, I have clearly laid out the purpose of our life at each stage. If we can accept that purpose then we can reconcile with our life to this point. Western Society as a whole has not yet fully reached the point of a fully-developed social conscience. Much of Western Society still honours accumulation, although it is slowly becoming apparent that this is no longer as easy or successful as in the last century. Western Europe is beginning to grapple with social conscience, the influx of displaced people from outside of Europe. But America is still in the last throes of material accumulation and power. This adds to the sense of crisis for people who have entered this stage of life and beyond: their life is no longer in concordance with the demands of society. Being out of step with the powerful marketing tools in our society leads to a lot of questioning. I believe we must accept that the purpose we feel at this stage of our life is true and ahead of the purpose of our society. The purpose is finding our place in society; balancing the taking with giving back.
All of the seeking for a social purpose to our life comes to head at the next return of the moon to our natal position: we want to start new initiatives based of the sense of purpose that has filled the last seven years, that began to develop with the purpose of growing into our social consciousness fourteen years earlier. Having reached the age of fifty six, the end of the eighth stage, my thoughts on possessions has changed. I could not previously understand older people wishing to downscale. I fully believed that having accumulated all one had, one should, at the very least, appreciate and live with the luxury of this accumulation and not get rid of it. Suddenly, I no longer feel the need to hold on to anything that I have accumulated. I feel that the purpose of my life no longer requires any of it – even though sentimentality still will not allow me to give it ALL away. I know that the purpose of achieving the balance I have spoken of; giving back to society based on the knowledge and talents we have acquired takes time.
Somewhere, as we age, I hope that we turn our knowledge into wisdom and the purpose becomes the sharing of wisdom, rather than knowledge and talents.
Living with my aged mother it is very clear to me that the purpose of old age is to “let go”. The purpose is to distil the essence of this life from the total experience and in so doing release connection with the unnecessary. It appears that twelve stages of seven years is the limit of our development. Thereafter our development goes into reverse. In the thirteenth stage (84 to 91 years of age) we appear to loose the function of our physical body – a mirror to the first stage of life. This may manifest in one or all of a loss of mobility, having to give up driving and losing the desire to travel or explore, even our own town or city. In the fourteenth stage we release our ability to think conceptually, thinking seems to focus on what is rather than what might be. I wonder, if we life long enough, will we notice how we lose connection with the complexity of our emotions; either become a focus of love and joy, or becoming grumpy. Finally, how will we release from our identity as an individual, will we see ourselves as truly a part of the whole of humanity?
Life has its own, very specific and very real purpose and if we honour and support the unfolding of that purpose we are living with purpose.
The cry to live a life of purpose may be a misplaced cry. I have felt inadequate because I had not defined my “passion”. I was not living a higher purpose and I was not developing an obvious legacy. When I look around not many other people are either. Should we all feel our life was “wasted” and “purposeless”. I don’t believe so at all. I am convinced that every stage of our life has its own, very specific and very real purpose and if we honour and support the unfolding of that purpose we are living with purpose. We may have a personal passion or something we feel purpose driven to achieve and we find that it develops as we move through the different purposes that drive the stages of life. We can halt the progress of our life purpose as little as we can halt the passing of time – and there is no plastic surgery for purpose. There is no point to envy the purpose we perceive in another person’s life, nor can we go back to the purpose we felt in earlier stage of our life and the future purposes will arrive soon enough. Living a purpose-filled life is the birthright of every person and it is in not appreciating this birthright – the progression of purpose through the stages of life – that we disconnect with our purpose and create discontent within yourself.
Sources: The ideas that I present here are very true to my own experience of life, but they have their origins in what I have learned through reading Anthroposophy and through others with an interest in Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education.
Post script: When I was forty two I was offered a voluntary separation package from the career of eighteen years. This offer arrived at just the right time and yet I was asked to remain in my job for another three years to finish off a project. Although my work-life remained the same, other aspects in my life began to adjust to the new future. This resulted in me working two jobs, fifteen hours a day. This focus on work gave me a feeling that I was living with purpose, I felt a certain fulfilment. Yet, everything I did in that period had no long term durability and all crumbled away before I reached the age of forty-eight. My personal sense of purpose was out of alignment with the purpose of my life as I have described it at that stage of my life. It is of little surprise then that what I perceived as purpose had no real purpose for me or for the future of my life.