Purpose–Asking the Right Question


“Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them” Dalai Lama

Can you remember the very first time someone asked you the ‘Ultimate Question’— “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I was four or five, and my answer was a firefighter. Who wouldn’t want to ride around town all day in a shiny red truck with the siren blaring, a Dalmatian sitting by your side, and everyone turning their heads to watch you speed down the street?

Of course, the answer would change many times over the next dozen years. My imagined purpose in life became tethered to a particular occupation, whatever that may turn out to be.

I remember watching my father put on his neatly pressed three-piece suit every morning and drive off to his work. I always wondered what businesspeople did – but they sure looked good doing it.

One day my dad and I were having one of our “Father/Son” chats. We talked about all the possibilities available to me in life. Suddenly, he looked intently at me and said; “I don’t care what you do in life, even if you end up being our cities street sweeper, as long as you are the best damn street sweeper that you can be.”

I don’t believe he had visions of me sweeping streets. ‘Mamas, don’t let your babies become street sweepers. Let them be Doctors and Lawyers and such.’ But his point was made; Do your best—the first indication to me that a life purpose went beyond an occupation, beyond what I do.

A few years later, as a young man with three young children, I did what I needed to do to provide, without wrestling with philosophical and existential questions like ‘what was the meaning of life and my purpose in it’. I was busy bringing home a paycheck.

Over time I began to sense a whisper in my soul indicating there was more to life than what I chose to do to make a living.

Jobs, homes, cars, bank accounts, relationships came and went through the course of my life—sometimes it was my fault, and sometimes it was simply out of my control. If my occupation was the sole descriptor of my purpose, I was losing ground.

I think that we tend to see ourselves as fundamentally different from each other, based solely on external comparisons. But as I take the time to really know someone, I discover that in essence, we are the same. We all seek happiness –yet not all realize that happiness comes as a result of living a life full of purpose and meaning. A life that we know has an impact. We may suspect this so deeply that when asked what is important, what is our purpose, we sometimes stammer to articulate it. But it is there, as real as out heart is.

Bookshelves today are filled with books on finding your purpose and living with meaning, from the fabulous Mans Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl to the more recent sensation by Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life.

Most of us are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: Simply stated, our needs in life evolve and become more sophisticated and outward-looking as each need is met.

Our first needs are the physical needs – food, clothing, shelter, followed by social needs—love and companionship, friends, family, community. Once these are met, the need for artistic expression emerges.

Somewhere in this development process, we may recognize the value in going beyond ourselves to others and to God in love and service – the ultimate need being one of self-transcendence. But, because we are all bent towards self-concern and self-preservation, this value had to be explicitly taught and demonstrated through the examples of men and women who achieved a transcendent life.

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk wrote;

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find meaning in life by ourselves alone—we find it in each other.”

Are we asking the wrong ultimate question? Rather than ask ‘What do you want to be(do) when you grow up?’, should we not instead ask ‘Who do you want to be?’ What kind of person do you want to grow up to be?

As all parents do, my wife and I have our hopes and dreams for our five children—and they are simply this: That they would each grow to be kind, gentle, compassionate, generous—in a word, motivated and led by love.

Today, they all have wildly varying occupations, but they do not vary in how they treat one another, their friends, and how they reach out to others in need.

If that is my ultimate hope for my children—should that not be my primary purpose in life as well?

All the world’s ancient and modern wisdom say very similar things. The secret to a life of joy and fulfillment is embracing a life of love and service to others.

Novelist and essayist Marylyn Robinson wrote “Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us.”

Referring to my previous blog, Joy: Signposts to Your Path -what brings you deep, abiding joy is a signpost to your life path or your purpose?

Joy is what I experience when listening and sharing with my heart to another person who is struggling in one area or another. To ‘half’ their burden by sharing it. As Rom Doss said, ‘We are all just walking each other home.’

An elderly monk was asked what it was like to live in the monastery. He paused for a moment, and then said: “I fall, my brother helps me up—he falls, and I help him up, and so it goes.”

As a believing Christian, I take Jesus as my model par excellence. Jesus said, “My Food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to finish the work.” So my food, what nourishes and strengthens my soul and causes me to continue to grow and live, is to do what he sent me to do until I am finished with the work he has given me to do. Today, I understand that work is simply love.

In the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” co-written by Bill Wilson, Bill makes an astounding statement that has transformed millions of lives over the last seventy years:

“At the moment, we are trying to put our lives in order—but this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.”

The moment I began to change my focus away from what I wanted to be and to achieve— what position and title I wanted, what salary, what home in what neighborhood, what ministry—to one simple, daily question ‘How can I be helpful today and to whom?’, remarkable things have happened.

Today, I rarely wish I was someone else, doing something else, living somewhere else. I now realize my purpose in life is not something I can hold or grasp. It cannot be touched. It is not material. It is simply to love. Everything else is footnotes.

Next week, I will offer some reflections on how to grow in our effectiveness in living out our life purpose of love and service.

Till then, I would love to hear your take on finding and walking in your life purpose.


2 Responses

  1. Don Dodson

    July 7, 2016 8:14 pm

    Late, but the specifics of my purpose seen to change. I, too, have gone through the shift from identifying with what I do as an occupation to who I am. For years, if you asked me who I was, I would hand you my business card. It was if, without that card, I was no one. The last job before I retired, I frequently found myself in a position strange t my former self. Someone would ask for my card, and even if we were at the office, I would find myself rummaging through my desk, saying, “I know there are some here somewhere.” That would NEVER have happened before.

    While the specifics change from year to year, month to month, maybe even day to day, you summed up my purpose – To Love. For me that is to be helpful, considerate, kind. I think the most simple, useful guidance I have ever received was, “Go be helpful”. I can apply this at any moment, any day with anybody anywhere. Keeps it simple!


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