Having A Purpose

A Russian friend recently related a startling story. During the Nazi invasion, his uncle, after being wounded, was sent back to the front during the frigid Russian winter. Even though he was sure to die under miserable conditions, the uncle regarded that as, “the happiest time in my life.” How could this existential threat and misery be so joyful?

What a contrast: Jonathan, a young man, came into my office “searching, just searching.” He had a dream job with good salary, benefits and the opportunity to travel the world, yet he still felt a profound emptiness. He was so dissatisfied with the job that after two years he quit. Sure, he made money, saw the world and met many women, however, without purpose, he felt empty.

My friend’s uncle had a clear-cut purpose. His homeland was invaded and it was his sacred duty to defend it even if it cost him his life. And that purpose gave him a mission. Having a purpose gives structure and meaning to life. We can organize our priorities around our goals that drive the overarching objective. While thinking about a New Year’s resolution, it’s also worth reflecting upon having a sense of purpose. What do you want said at your funeral?

To many, religion gives purpose. Fundamentalists often carry a sense of tranquility with them. Others see wealth or success as a purpose and are driven by those goals. Usually, in order to become wealthy and successful, a necessary product or a service needs to be provided—focusing on success is not always a bad thing. Scientists are no less competitive than football players and their achievements often lift humanity.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out that we have a hierarchy of needs. We must meet the survival needs before the more altruistic and personal ones can be addressed. These purposes do not have to be grandiose to add structure and meaning to our lives (an English colleague said he “just wanted to be a decent person”). Jon could quit his job because his parents were supportive and encouraging. If he had to put bread on the table, it is unlikely that he would have quit. Reality requires that we also have flexibility of purposes. Jon wants to write a book that will enlighten people. Others have the goal of becoming an artist, a doctor or president. All are worthwhile and should be encouraged. Reality is a harsh master and given that there are far fewer openings than applicants looking for most jobs, flexibility is necessary to keep moving forward. Not meeting our dreams does not mean failure.

Although people differ in their purposes, most of us share some simple goals that are assumed and meaningful. One major purpose is security—both in our finances and in our personal relationships. Having a functional family, being able to have loving relationships and giving security to people in our orbits are basics. As Maslow pointed out, after security we have a goal of emotional, intellectual and social growth. We can also have the purpose of providing conditions for growth of our families and people around us. Terminal patients don’t regret not making more money, not working harder or not having more possessions. They instead often regret not spending enough time with their families.

Think! What do you want said at your funeral?