According to Google, the definition of purpose is: “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”
So, when someone asks us: “Hey, uhhh, what’s your purpose in life?” They’re asking us why we exist?
When I was a child, I had a close family member who’d repeatedly confront me with similar questions but from a place of anger and intimidation. They’d ask 9-year-old me: “Why are you even here? What do you do around here? Nothing. You do nothing!” They knew how to break me down. I felt like I was always making mistakes and feeling I wasn’t good enough. I internalized those thoughts, and part of me is still struggling to come up with a good response.
But I’m healing.
And, I’ve come a long long way. I bet you have too.
Maybe you’ve had some bullies in your life. Maybe someone has made you feel like less without even meaning to, but you still question your impact, your meaning, your reason for being. Am I doing enough?
Maybe you saw a groundbreaking TED talk, or you heard the news about an amazing child prodigy, or your friend told you about someone who has this really cool start-up. What am I even doing with my life?
Perhaps, you’ve found yourself scrolling on social media late at a night and feeling like everyone but you is living their best lives.
Or maybe you go deeper with it and ask yourself: “Is there even a reason for me to be here? Do I even have a purpose? And if I don’t, what’s that mean about my existence.”
A lot of us end up here. You’re not alone.
We spiral and find ourselves viewing our lives as meaningless and worthless because we aren’t doing what others are doing. We internally berate ourselves for not accomplishing what we could be accomplishing based on our qualifications, ability, privilege, network, or training.
We convince ourselves that we don’t measure up.
We tell ourselves that we’ll matter more when we get the job, the spouse, the money, the degree, the _____.
Sadly, our self-worth can often be completely tied up in everything we don’t have and everything we feel like we’re not.
We can find ourselves in the happiest experiences of our lives (like truly thriving), only to be swept under the waves of self-doubt and misery moments later, when we realize we don’t have ourselves all figured out yet. Or when we hastily push ahead and set another goal to accomplish. Or when we realize that some parts of us are still broken.
But, here’s the truth of it: all of us have brokenness. All of us have doubt. All of us have shame. And still, our lives have meaning.
Each of us has the capacity to add something to the communities we live in, the churches we’re a part of, the families we care for, the schools we attend, and the strangers we meet. We can make all those places a little better. Often we’re doing this by simply showing up and being ourselves – our clumsy, unsure, brilliant, zestful, intelligent selves.
Yes, I’m still talking about you and me.
I think we get to break up the concept of purpose into smaller and more realistic pieces. Instead of asking: “Why am I here?” ask yourself about what you enjoy, what breaks your heart, who has thanked you recently about something you did for them, what you’re good at – like naturally good at, or what you work hard at even though you don’t get paid for it.
Ask yourself about what you’ve made it through. Ask yourself about how resilient you’ve been. Ask yourself about the things no one can ever take from you.
What excites you – or what used to? What do you care about – even if others don’t find it the least bit interesting.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about these questions, and here’s what I came up with.
Pieces of my purpose: To be a kind, good, and caring husband. To be a supportive older brother and supportive to others in my family. To be a solid and dependable friend. It breaks my heart to know that others are struggling in silence with mental illness. I find myself thinking of ways to help others take better care of themselves – this keeps me up at night. I also find myself thinking of ways to create community with other black men around issues of health and wellness, because so many of us are dying and suffering from preventable issues. I enjoy doing improv, writing, connecting with people, dancing, and bringing people together. If I wasn’t afraid, I would go all in on my dreams – I’m getting closer. Even at my lowest points, my worst moments, my biggest failures, I am still loved. I wholeheartedly believe part of my reason for being on this earth is to share God’s light with others through my work. I’ve often struggled to communicate this, because I feel like saying I’m a Christian and I love doing the work of the Lord turns others off, but it’s who I am. So here it is: I love Jesus. And if you don’t, I’m cool with that, and I still love you and celebrate you and think you get to have the big wondrous life you want to live. I find that leading and living from my heart makes all the different. It’s about love for me. That’s the big picture. Lastly, I believe I’ve had a positive impact on the lives of many just by showing up and being kind.
And, there’s so much more to me.
There’s so much more to you.
If you’re struggling to get unstuck from feeling like you have to have your entire life figured out today, I encourage you to pause, take a deep breath, and find some time to reflect on the topic of purpose in a different way. Remember to break it up.
Here are some questions to ask yourself this week, as you dig into this topic a little more.
I don’t suggest trying to respond to every one, it’s not a test. See which question tugs at you the most, kicks up stuff for you the most, or just feels most salient for you right now.
- What issue or idea has been keeping me up at night?
- What’s been breaking my heart?
- What am I already doing that has a positive impact on the lives of others – if only a little?
- What have my friends, family, or strangers thanked me for lately?
- What would I create, add to, join, or show up for if I had the resources and wasn’t afraid?
- What have I been hesitant to tell others about who I am and what I believe?
Oh, and I just gotta say this. Sometimes, we need to put down the journal, and get out, do something, and shake things up. I’ve personally found that taking action is a healthy way to move through the anxiety of trying to figure out ALL THE THINGS. This means signing up to volunteer service, joining a book club, attending a free lecture at a nearby college campus, or signing up for a workshop gets you out of your comfort zone. Thinking and reflection are necessary, and so is getting lost in experiences, meeting people you’ve never met, and doing things you never thought you could do.
Perhaps you won’t find the entire meaning for your life by doing this (you don’t need to), but you will learn something about yourself. You will take memories with you, and you will hopefully feel a little more alive.
You do not have to know your purpose in life to have meaning on this earth.
You don’t even have to be living on purpose to be belong here.
You already belong, and you’re already enough just because of the fact that you’re living and breathing. Those are the prerequisites. Live. Breathe.
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I have a confession to make: I have an incessant need for others to tell me that my life’s work has been worth something.
If you follow me on social media, you’ll see positive tweets and updates. I work in Higher Education because I want to motivate and inspire college students to live awesome lives. I randomly send motivational and inspiring postcards to friends, family, and acquaintances to brighten their day. So what’s the problem? What could I possibly have to gripe about if my intentions are good? For one, it’s been increasingly difficult for a realistic optimist like me in a world that appears to thrive on bad news, gossip, and scandal. I struggle to find my place. Some of this struggle is self-induced.
The Real Issue
I’ve been focused on the responses, likes, and favorites I don’t receive when I put something positive out into the universe. It sounds ridiculous when I write it down, but at the end of the day I want to know my work has added value to other’s lives. On bad days, I equate the number of people I’ve helped to my level of self-worth. I can put in a ton of effort and still feel defeated when:
a) A person denies my help
b) I receive negative criticism or cynicism about something positive I’ve said, written or done
c) Someone accepts the help, but continues to exhibit destructive habits and behaviors
Consequently, I tell myself that I should just stop helping people. Surely, I could be doing something else with my life where I could see instant results, make more money, gain worldwide notoriety, and feel like what I do means something. But now, I’m done being concerned with the what else. I don’t know what that other thing would be, and on my best days I know that chasing happiness and fame is a fruitless venture. I wouldn’t enjoy the acclaim because I’d never feel fulfilled. I won’t ever feel like what I do means something, unless I believe it in myself. It starts with me.
I love working with others and seeing them actualize their goals. I silently celebrate when I see my students grow and become more self-aware. I’m just a small step on their long journey, but it means something even if they don’t tell me it does. It means something even when I don’t witness their development, and when I find out how I’ve touched their lives. Moving forward, I don’t need the satisfaction of knowing my work has done something monumental. I need to know where I can be helpful and who I can help.
We shouldn’t stop helping people. What we can do is rethink our approach. We can make sure we’re not letting doubt and irrational needs get in our way of doing good. If you’re out there doing good and with good intentions, stop explaining yourself. I’m tired of explaining why I help others, smile at people, or greet strangers when I walk in a room. Deep down, I know that I feel loved and welcomed when others do this for me. I don’t need to explain how any given action might go a long way. What I want to start saying is: “I don’t always know why I do it, but I know that I care. Try it for yourself. Help someone and don’t expect anything. Let your curiosity run wild and see where it gets you.” The other challenging task is telling myself that I don’t always need to justify my actions.
Don’t think yourself out of doing good. For every hour I sit doubting that I’m making an impact, I could be spending time pouring into the lives of others. Doubt stalls us. The only feedback I want is if I’m doing more harm than good. Tell me if I’m accidentally teaching people to be dependent. Gently help me notice if I’m talking more than I’m listening. Other than that, no response is needed if someone’s life is improving. I appreciate a thank you or a kind follow up, but I’m working towards not craving the feedback. Validation and affirmation aren’t life support, they’re the icing on the cake.
I’m getting closer to fully accepting and being who I am: a person who enjoys being at your service. I’m betting you’re getting closer too.