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On Finding Purpose

We’re often taught about the importance of “finding your purpose” as you set out into the world and choose your pathway forward. The words change–sometimes it’s ‘purpose’, but you might also find your ‘bliss’, your ‘passion’, your ‘voice’, your ‘career’, or your ‘calling’–but the narrative remains the same.

Whatever it is, you’ve gotta find it.¬†And when you do, you’ll go far.

Within this story, hiding in plain sight, is the assumption that once you’ve found your purpose, you’ll stick to it like a magnet, ne’er to be separated. Like Robert Lewis Stevenson’s shadow, your purpose will go everywhere with you, and from then on, you’ll be inseparable. That which you do, you will do with purpose, and when you do, you’ll go far.

The challenge, for many of us, is that we change–and when we do, sometimes we outgrow our old purpose and need to find a new one.

This can be excruciating for folks who feel like they’ve already found it, because the stories we celebrate mostly only show people riding this roller coaster once. We get it that it’s often important to go looking for “your thing” at some point in your life–but we get pretty uncomfortable when that journey starts happening more than once.

Thing is: the task of finding purpose isn’t always a one-time event. It can’t always be completed and permanently checked off the to-do list. Some people start questing for a new purpose because of births, deaths, weddings, or breakups; others because of job loss; still others simply because some quiet voice within begins to whisper that a change is needed.

This can be a pretty hard thing in a world that values constancy and reliability.

I’ve been musing about perspectives a lot lately–examining the ways that mental models shape what we see. I wonder if there’s a way to reframe our understanding of what it means to find purpose, and to accept the finding as a necessarily ephemeral thing.

It’s finally turning toward spring here in Vermont, and I’ve seen a few ephemeral flowers while out walking–flowers that come only briefly in the early parts of the year, and that won’t return until the next. We love them both despite and because of their brevity. Maybe that’s the model for finding purpose: to love it while it’s here, and to look forward to its return once it’s gone.

Or maybe it’s like plants with flowerpots. I have some plants that never seem to need re-potting; having reached their mature size, they don’t seem interested in further expansion. Once they’ve got the right size pot, it works forever. Other plants continually need re-potting because they keep growing and changing, and the best way to stunt their development is to refuse to accept that they need new pots. Maybe the lesson is: learn to notice when you’ve outgrown your pot and accept that it’s time to find a new one.

I’m blessed to live with a sweet and rambunctious kitten who loves to play chasing games with a cat toy on a stick. He loves it so much that if I’ve ignored his needs for too long, he’ll go fetch the toy and bring it to me, dragging it with his mouth, clearly communicating that his life would be better if I’d give him the chance to chase it again.

He’s bored when the toy sits still, because he loves the chase. It’s boring when the toy stays caught! For him, joy means getting to play the same game again and again.

Maybe that’s my lesson for finding purpose: learn to love the chase, too.

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