The Purpose-Inspired Life

By Carl Golden

“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, being a force of nature instead of a feverish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Many of us are very busy living lives pursuing the ten-thousand things that are supposed to make us happy. More often than not, however, this path leads into meaningless and bitter stations in life that may serve others, but not ourselves, and we become disheartened.

To make matters worse, we often arrive at this unhappy place quite perplexed. I counseled a woman once who shared with me her bewilderment about feeling generally unhappy with her life: "I don't get it. I'm a seasoned executive, and I have a pretty good life: a nice house, a good marriage, children, a comfortable retirement, reasonably good health, the ability to travel wherever and whenever I want to. And yet, I'm not happy, and I don't feel fulfilled. I just feel so empty. I must be crazy!" Lots of materially successful people feel this way because they are not living a life inspired by purpose larger than themselves and their agendas.

We are trained to think that fulfilling the roles in our lives and beefing up our bank accounts will be personally fulfilling, but they aren't. In fact, such a life can--and often does--leave one feeling empty. We can devote ourselves to all the roles that society expects of us: father, mother, loyal employee, good Christian (or Jew, or Buddhist, or Muslim, etc.), and still feel empty inside. We can work hard and amass a great deal of wealth, only to discover that all our hard work and material riches do not make us truly happy. It seems like the bumper sticker, "Life's a bitch, and then you die," is true. Is this what life is all about?

Fortunately, it's not. However, if you don't clue into the real purpose of your life, then you are likely to end up unfulfilled and perplexed.

Starting on the Purposeful Path

A life inspired by purpose is a life defined by vision and meaning rather than roles and stuff. Each of us needs a purpose that is bigger than all of our personal gains and losses in order to root us into a profound sense of meaning that can span the ebb and flow of our lives. To realize such a purpose, we need a vision of who we are and what we are ultimetly about that enobles our efforts, inspires our souls, and encourages our hearts despite the outcome.

As you begin your soulful journey to discover your purpose, it makes sense to ask the right questions. To do this, we’ll start by exploring this basic question: What is a life purpose?

If you are like most people, you will probably answer the question by saying something similar to the followng: “A life purpose is what I’m meant to do while I’m here on earth.”

There is a problem with this common view, and it lies in the word, do. Most of us believe that our life purpose is all about what we’re here to do. This approach is problematical because it often leads into the trap of roles and acquisition.

Of course, the doing orientation is difficult to avoid, especially in a consumer culture like our own, where we are inundated with messages about being somebody by doing and acquiring. As a result, most of us live busy lives filled with a lot of stuff, and then we wake up one day and feel like something is missing. It’s as if we took a detour without realizing it. Perhaps the marriage is on the rocks, or the kids are skidding sideways, and we wonder how we ended up where we are.

I have found that when people work from this cultural perspective, they often look to two areas of life for purpose and meaning. Many people look for purpose in their work--their job, career, or profession, while others look to some primary role in life, like being a good parent or spouse, or a “dutiful” son or daughter.

Unfortunately, operating from either or both of these perspectives has limitations and pitfalls. For example, what happens if you misidentify your life purpose as your job, career, or profession, and then, for whatever reason, you’re not able to continue your work? Many people, especially men, will lose a sense of meaningfullness in their lives because their purpose in life has been stripped from them, and this can lead to disastrous ends.

According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide has gone from the eighth leading cause of death among middle-aged Americans to third, behind cancer and heart disease. In fact, more Americans now die of suicide than in road accidents. People aged 35 to 64 account for about 57% of suicides in the US with white men and women leading the trend by a 40% increase between 1999 and 2010. This is a tragic example of how serving a disingenuous purpose can leave one empty of meaning and despairing.

The same is true for people who think that one of their primary roles is their life purpose. For example, what happens when we think that being a good parent to our children is our life purpose, and then we wake up one day to find that our children have grown up and left home? We have a name for such a condition: it’s called the empty nest syndrome. Or what happens if our children fall into the trap of drug addiction and become persons who are very different from what we had hoped they would be? As parents, are we failures? Those of us who don't have life purposes that are bigger than any one role will often descend into self-judgment and unnecessary suffering.

The perspective of doing has another pitfall in that we often identify some part of our life as our life purpose. This doesn’t make sense. Our life purpose should be able to include all of our life--not just our work, not just some significant role, but all our life and all that we do in our life.

If we’re interested in clarifying our true purpose so that we can have a life that is fulfilling and satisfying, we need to operate from a new perspective of what a life purpose is. This way, when we head out into life, we’ll be able to travel down a different path--a purposeful path that leads to a life of joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

The Purpose-Inspired Life Perspective

Here’s a different perspective I’d like you to try on: A life purpose is the soulful vision that you serve throughout your life. This soulful vision is critically important. As I have already pointed out, most people are asking themselves the wrong question. They’re asking, “What is it I’m supposed to do with my life?” But the doing itself isn’t the life purpose. A life purpose is that which shapes and gives contextual meaning to the doing! In other words, it is your "Why?" Said another way, your life purpose is the visionary context or overarching meaning you ascribe to life that then shapes the doingness of your life. Consequentially, the things we do in life are expressions of our life purpose. This brings us to an important distinction:
  • Life purpose = The visionary context of your life that shapes what you do
  • Doing, actions, projects, goals = The ways in which you express your life purpose
So, if doing is the way we carry out our life purpose in the world, then how do we recognize the soulful vision that shapes our doing? To answer this question, we must ask, "What are the key characteristics of a life purpose?"

There are certain qualities that characterize any life purpose:
  • It should be powerful enough to shape us as we go through the many moments of our lives, doing whatever we do.
  • It should be long lasting and enduring.
  • It should be flexible, giving us plenty of room to play and to express ourselves fully.
With these three qualities of a life purpose in mind, it is important to ask the following question: “What basic elements will consistently result in a life purpose with these essential qualities every time and for everyone?”

The Basic Elements of an Empowering and Enduring Life Purpose

Many elements could contribute to the creation of a powerful, long lasting, and flexible life purpose. I have found the following three elements to be most effective:
  • Vision: What is the vision or possibility you see for your life and your world?
  • Values: What are the core values you stand for and are willing to give your life to?
  • Being: Who are you? What can people count on from you? Life purpose is more about who you are than what you do.
Let’s look at each one of these elements in more depth.

Vision--What We Want to Bring Forth in Our Life and World
Each of us has a unique sense of what’s possible in our own lives--with our families, in our community, and in the world. Getting in touch with this vision of what’s possible is one of the basic necessities for clarifying your life purpose. In order to awaken our vision, we need to rediscover the art of the possible. If you spend much time around young, fully expressed children, you’ll notice how they live in possibility. They invent games on the spot and then aren’t afraid to change the rules whenever they realize there’s a new way to play that will be even more fun. Children are filled with the spirit of what’s possible. Unfortunately, far too many of us have had that spirit stifled by well-meaning people, challenging circumstances, and our own reactions to and interpretations of them. However, no matter what has happened to us in the past, it is possible for all of us to return to that childlike innocence. Not only is it possible, it’s necessary if we want to clarify our true purpose in life.

Values--What Matters Most
Clarifying our core values is a refinement process, not all that different from peeling away the layers of an onion. We often start with a long list of things we’ve been taught we should value. In fact, I call this first layer the should values. But it’s important to peel through this layer until we get to those values we really choose to live in our life. The second layer of the onion is our chosen values. The really important layer is even further within. I’m talking about those select values, usually not more than three to six intangibles, that we’d be willing to give our lives for. These are our core values. Just like we all have a unique vision of what’s possible, we also have a unique set of core values that are an integral part of our life purpose.

Being--The Essence of Who We Are
One of the most important questions that can shape anyone’s life is, “Who am I?” When we can distinguish who we are and the way or ways of being that are at our core, then we have another important basic element for our life purpose. We all have unique ways of being that we’ve come to count on and that we know others can count on as well. Distinguishing these gives us yet one more important piece of the puzzle of what our purpose in life is.

The Glue That Holds it All Together
There is actually a fourth component of life purpose that is so critical to the formation of a powerful, enduring, and flexible life purpose that you can think of it as the foundation upon which the life purpose stands and the glue that holds it all together. There are various ways to refer to this last ingredient. One way is to call it love-the universal attractive force of unconditional love that binds us all together and connects us powerfully to the rest of the cosmos. Another way to describe it is your relationship with God, a higher power, or your spirituality. When we combine this glue with your unique vision of what’s possible in the world, your unique set of core values, and your unique qualities of being, we end up with a powerful, empowering, and enduring life purpose that still has ample room for us to play and express ourselves. This life purpose becomes the context that shapes and forms us as we go about doing all the things that make up our life.

From Concept to Reality: An Example

I have worn many professional hats over the course of my adult life--primarily teacher, psychotherapist and environmental activist. Also, I established my own private psychotherapy and coaching practice that incorporates both spiritual and ecopsychological principals. I have enjoyed this work--more or less--over the years. However, although teaching and healing are important to me, I know these occupations are not my life purpose.

My life purpose is to foster the integrous maturation and wellness of heart, mind, body and soul of myself and others with Nature through a life of passionate and playful service to both the human and nonhuman worlds. My intent is to grow in wisdom, to live simply, to be mindful of Truth, Beauty and Goodness in all of my relations, and to protect Nature by any means necessary.

This, then, becomes the soulful vision I serve with my life. It shapes who I am and what I do as a teacher, psychotherapist, coach, activist, and writer. It also shapes my personal life as a lover, friend and member of my community. In fact, it shapes all of my life, each and every moment of it.

Once you are crystal clear about your true life purpose, it has the power and the possibility to shape all of your life--your thoughts and feelings, your decisions and choices, your speaking and actions, and ultimately your results in life. There is tremendous power when all of these factors come together in a congruent way, when your thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, speaking, and actions are all congruent and in integrity with each other. This is what makes living with purpose both possible and exhilarating.

Defining the Terrain

This assignment will give you a sense of direction along the path toward your Purpose-Inspired Life. Remember, you don’t have to come up with the definitive answer--simply ponder things for a while.

Here are a few questions to ponder:
  • What is the vision you hold for your life and our world?
  • What are the core values that you’d give your life to uphold?
  • Who are you, and what can we count on from you?
Now, blend all of that with the universal attractive force of unconditional love or your relationship with God, a higher power, or your spirituality. Then consider:
  • What soulful vision could shape the rest of your life and all that you do?
Remember, just ponder it and see what you discover.

If you would like to schedule an appointment, then e-mail Carl Golden anytime or call (206) 778-4465 between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (PST).

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