what we talk about when we talk about purpose




You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? — Steven Wright

So you want a purpose. It’s a shame you can’t just buy one off the Internet. But if you don’t have a purpose, and you’re looking for a purpose, maybe that is your purpose right now. To engage in that process of discovery.

Call it a vision, a mission statement, a personal creed, a tattoo: different strokes for different folks.

Purpose is a way of nailing ourselves to the world. click to tweet

It’s that point where our inner life connects to a shared and much larger picture, through the expression of what Nilofer Merchant calls our onlyness.

(When I grow up, I want to be as smart as Nilofer Merchant.)

She writes:

“Onlyness is that thing that only one particular person can bring to a situation…Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective and vision…”

She adds:

“Embracing onlyness means that…we must embrace our history, not deny it. This includes both our ‘dark’ and our ‘light’ sides. Because when we deny our history, vision, perspective, we are also denying a unique point of view, that which only we can bring to the situation. Each onlyness is essential for solving new problems, as well as for finding new solutions to old problems.”

If purpose involves embracing your onlyness, it’s also about listening for the call of the times – and how it calls you in particular (and what it calls forth from you). Purpose depends not just on who you are, but on where and when you live, the problems rising to meet you.

I can’t help wondering if the reason so many of us struggle with purpose is because we’re trying to lock down something meant to be fluid and dynamic: it grows as we grow, shifts as the world shifts. You think you’ve got a hold of it with both hands only to find it’s slipped your grasp and transformed into something else.

Maybe it doesn’t come as a neat and tidy verbal statement.

Maybe trying to cast it into language is a mistake: narrows the meaning, cuts off the oxygen.

Maybe, for some of us, purpose is felt deep in the body, like an arrow that keeps pointing us in certain directions, even (or especially) when we keep trying to go another way.

Maybe it lives in our minds as a recurring image, a waking dream, a secret self.

Maybe purpose isn’t a quest, but a multilevel process of surrendering to what you already know, in that bone-deep sense that goes beyond words.

It’s about paying attention to the kinds of things you notice – and the things you don’t notice – and what that says about what you truly care about. It’s about noticing where your mind goes when it doesn’t have to be thinking about anything in particular. It’s about what you see in your daydreams. It’s about what in the world gets under your skin and tugs at your soul and makes you want to cry or scream or stand there amazed at the beauty of it all. It’s about what pulls you forward. It’s about what draws other people to you. It’s about what you embody and how you embody it.

Most of all, though, I think it’s about the thing in you that’s bigger than the fear we all feel when we want to try or do or be something great. The only thing that can drive out fear is love, whether it’s for self or someone else or some ideal, for animals or the planet or humanity in general. Purpose taps into that love, leads with that love, and people can’t help but respond because who in their right mind doesn’t want to be around love?

Show me who you love, or so the saying goes, and I’ll show you who you are.

All we have to do is remember.

May 6, 2013

2 comments · Add Yours

I like that. Yes, it’s fluid, and yes we try and hold it down, and we feel cast adrift when we lose it. Maybe it’s always floating and never lost. Maybe we need to think of it as air rather than as earth, while grounding ourselves in the latter because sometimes, fuck it, everything’s too airy as it is and something grounded would be nice to hang on to.

I was reading something the other day that was talking about how native Hawaiian culture believes that the essence of everything contains three parts – the mother/consciousness, the father/superconsciousness and the child/subconscious. This doctor was giving a seminar and conducting training, and he left in the middle of it one afternoon because his child told him to go take a nap (it was done responsibly; he had someone to take over the training. He didn’t just leave everyone in the lurch). It’s that childness that I was reminded of when reading this post. I really could do with a bit of lightening the fuck up, personally. That flow space is priceless. You need very little within it, and so much falls away. I look forward to its return :)


Great post. Thank you.


Add your comment