How do I find purpose in life?

I can sit in the tub and brood for hours, but never reach a firm decision.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 14, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I perceive that you do not like nebulous questions. Apologies in advance.

I have just turned 25. For nearly two years I've lived in northern England, in a fairly insular, anonymous small town. I moved here from the D.C. area, which I despised. I have a very cushy, interesting job, and recently have been granted a sabbatical leave, which means I get to attend grad school and listen to dishy lecturers with posh accents all day.

While I've been here, I've gotten around -- I've hiked and traveled throughout the U.K. and have taken numerous trips around Europe. I play viola with a local symphony, run and do heaps of yoga. I've largely been a social hermit, though this is mostly deliberate.

So, to the point: Even though I've always held a sort of absurdist worldview, I find that despite my idyllic circumstances I feel inherently unfulfilled and moreover that this really bothers me. I desperately crave some sort of driving purpose or passion, something that doesn't especially have to be meaningful to anyone else but me, but is consistently compelling.

Though at work I'm considered quite talented at what I do, and my job is sometimes intellectually stimulating, I find it leaves me feeling rather empty. The difficulty is I've never really found anything that doesn't ultimately do this; my hobbies and interests are amusing distractions, but only those.

While traveling I feel temporarily removed from this, so I do it a lot. I especially like limbo zones (e.g. train stations and airports) for some reason -- even more so usually than the destinations themselves.

I find myself becoming increasingly restless and broody about this. I idle away hours in the bath turning over the options in my head -- whether to move someplace different, exact a complete career change, etc. -- but I never reach any firm decisions, or even convince myself that there's really a problem in the first place, though I suppose there obviously is, if I'm thinking about it so much.

How does one go about sensing or finding one's life's purpose? Do I simply have to try everything? That sounds so exhausting.


Traveler to the Grave

Dear Traveler,

To me, having a purpose in life means finding a way to be useful. It means being of service. How can you be of service? You can be of service to many things, and in ways that are as abstract or concrete as you wish. The crucial thing, I have found, is that you must identify an object, being, group or idea external to yourself to which you can be of service. For instance, you might be useful to the realm of aesthetics. You might be useful to God, or to animals, or to the rain forest, or to the municipal water district or the police department, or to a particular person whose children you agree to bear, or whose family you join and enliven with your wit and your music. To me, the central element of purpose is external -- that is what makes it purpose rather than self-obsession.

Why must this be so? What is wrong with trying to perfect one's person as a purpose? If perfecting your own pretty self were purpose enough, why would you be asking me the question? Why climb out of the tub? If you didn't need a purpose external to yourself, why wouldn't sitting in the tub be sufficient purpose for you? After all, you're comfortable there. You're not in pain. That's why I think what you're actually asking is how to find something in the world for which you can be of service.

What about a spiritual pursuit that involves long, solitary meditation? Is that not about self-perfection? What service to an external entity does such a solitary pursuit perform? Well, it's usually about devotion to the cosmos, to the mysterious ether of existence, to God, to wisdom -- it is not just about the body sitting in lotus position in the shade. Do not almost all mystical revelations include some boilerplate about oneness, about merging with the cosmos? What self-respecting spiritual traveler could deny the importance of the cosmos? What value would there be in a spiritual perfection that involved nothing but consciousness of the self? If consciousness of the self were all one aspired to, meditation would not be necessary. I can tell you right now I'm fully conscious of my self. I don't need to meditate to know I'm here. I'm sitting in a chair, working. It's pretty unprofound, all in all. The mere fact that I'm sitting in this chair is not of much significance. It's my purpose in sitting that animates my presence and gives it meaning. I'm trying to explain something. I'm trying to be of service.

Or, you might stay, what about those who find their life's purpose in bodybuilding, in perfection of their body? Is that not a solitary purpose? No, I would say it is not. The perfection of the body provokes the admiration of others, the participation in contests, the furtherance of a group belief in the perfection of the body as metaphor for the perfection of the spirit.

I think the only purpose that does not reach beyond the self is the narcissistic purpose, which is less a purpose than a symptom.

So: Of what might a noble but purely selfish purpose consist? Is it possible for a good purpose to involve only the self? I don't think so. Maybe I'm not smart enough to argue it convincingly. But you asked me and that's what I think: Purpose is found in service to something higher than you -- higher decibels, higher trees, higher truths, whatever. You've got to find a reason outside of your self to get out of the tub and towel off.

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