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Down the Rabbit Hole of Purpose

Updated: Feb 24, 2023


Looking down a round tunnel shaft.

Sometimes a patient at the medical center will ask me what I think their purpose in life should be. I always compliment them for thinking about the big picture, but I kindly explain that such a question is rarely solved so easily. Your purpose can't be given to you by another human being, you have to determine it for yourself.


I may have some thoughts on the matter, but I constantly remind myself, I'm a chaplain, not a guru. I really don't know the answer for them. And besides, the best mission for a person to set out on is the one that they have fully embraced on their own.


I believe that people can figure out their life's purpose. But it takes some effort, some thoughtfulness, and some trial and error. You rarely locate it simply by wandering around until you stumble upon it. It's not that easy to identify.


Because of this, or maybe because of the melodramatic connotations invoked by the admonishment "find your life's purpose," some people have jettisoned the whole notion as silly nonsense. To such cynics, the idea that one should determine an overarching goal or, what some might label, a spiritual calling for one's life seems a bit overdone. They point out that many people seem to be doing quite well without having identified their purpose in life. Still others, they claim, have found their purpose, and yet it has led to nothing but disappointment and disaster for them and those around them.


If we equate finding one's purpose as the same thing as discovering what we really enjoy doing or what we have a passion for, then it probably isn't that critical to one's life. We all know that passion fades, interests change, and people are fickle. But if we define finding one's life purpose as discovering the mission of blessing a person is intended to engage in on a regular basis, then we have found something much bigger than ourself. It's something worth pursuing, and probably even suffering for.


The surprising thing about finding one's life purpose is that it has both long term and short term rewards. The long term benefit is that in our sunset years we can look back on a life of meaning, a life that had a positive impact on others. The short term benefit of finding one's life purpose is also powerful. It provides immediate direction for our life and helps us know what to do next. This is adeptly pointed out in the dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll's book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the cat.
"I don't much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the cat.

Book cover of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Like Alice, many of us are wondering what we should do next, but we haven't really considered where we are ultimately trying to get to. Because we don't know our life's purpose, we have an extremely difficult time choosing between the daily choices we encounter.


For example, let's say I am having a difficult time deciding if I should change jobs. I'm probably wondering if the career change would be worth the trouble. To decide the question, I can look at the new career possibility from a pro vs. con perspective--what good things (money, autonomy, status) will it bring me compared to the bad things (retraining, increased commute, more paperwork). If I expect more good outcomes than bad ones I should pursue the new job; but if I expect more negative results than good ones, I should not.


This "ledger measure" approach, as I like to call it, is useful and common, but there may be a better way to approach decision making, one that is derived from knowing one's life purpose. In a thought provoking TED Talk, philosopher Ruth Chang suggests we should consider making hard decisions based on who we aspire to be. (You can click on the photo below to follow the link to her talk on the ted.com website.)


Screen capture of Ted Talk video by Ruth Chang.

Like the Cheshire Cat, Dr. Chang is suggesting that our smaller life choices are best determined as we look at them through the lens of our life's larger purpose.


Let's return for a moment to our previous example where I was trying to decide on a job change. Rather than conducting a standard "ledger measure," I could actually ask myself which job connects better with my identified life's purpose. From a simple accounting perspective it won't seem very smart to leave a six-figure salary in a cozy dean's office in order to work as an entry-level chaplain at a busy medical center. But if that chaplain position moves me closer to my mission to comfort the hurting and encourage the downcast, then it may very well be the best thing for me to do.


Dr. Chang's suggestion here is simple. Decide first who you want to be, then take action towards that goal. This is a critically important realization, because it highlights that it works best when destination determines direction.


While this may be a catchy "3D" slogan, those of you who are paying attention have probably already noticed that this actually doesn't get us any closer to discovering our specific purpose in life. Just because we realize we need to identify our destination, doesn't mean we will be able to locate it.


That's true, and as I said earlier, finding one's life purpose isn't an inherently easy thing to do. It took me much longer than I'd like to admit. But it can be done, and in future articles I'll try to explain some of the insights and actions I have learned along the way. Perhaps they will be of help to you as well. For now, the goal of this essay is to provide you with three perspectives to consider as we initiate this journey of discovery together. These are:

  1. Each individual has to determine his or her own life's purpose.

  2. Life purpose can be defined as the mission of blessing one is intended to engage in on a regular basis.

  3. Possessing a life purpose improves one's decision-making process.

What do you think of these three perspectives? Do you have your own definition of life purpose? If so, are you open to sharing it here?



(Credits: Rabbit Hole Photo by Diane Picchiottino on Unsplash; Quote from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Book cover photo from AbeBooks; Screen capture from ted.com)

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