I had a very interesting moment in therapy the other day, with one of my clients. We were discussing and exploring the idea of purpose, and I said something which elicited quite a response from my client: “Ryan, that’s actually quite a radical thought.” The most surprising thing about it, is that I’d never really considered how what I said, therefore what I think, could be considered radical.
It came from something my client said as they discussed their own relationship with the idea of purpose, and I’m paraphrasing a bit here: “There’s got to be some kind of purpose, it can’t just be that I was born and that’s it.” And I suggested, radically: what if it is? What if, in fact, our purpose is primarily to live and just be? Why is being born not enough? Why do we have to make something of ourselves, leave legacies behind, change the world, answer a higher call, live with greatness and excellence? Why is purpose usually defined by the outside world?
To be clear, when my client suggested that this was radical, I kind of knew exactly why: the structures that keep our societies afloat, are often based on the lack of human self-worth. Imagine this: if all of us were to wake up tomorrow, feeling and knowing that we were enough as we were, the world would radically change. Entire industries and businesses would become obsolete, divisions and prejudices would disappear, the fabric of society would collapse. With a sense of being enough, we wouldn’t need the wide variety of hierarchies which rules all of our lives.
Does this mean, then, that we shouldn’t also aspire to some kind of purpose, anyway? I’ll leave this question unanswered for now, because I wouldn’t really know where to start. Personally, I can say that the idea of purpose has led me down many rabbit holes in my life, and I’m conflicted about it, even as I do something that I love and am passionate about, as a Dramatherapist. It’s like that story Oprah Winfrey always tells about Maya Angelou, when Oprah said that her school in South Africa would be her greatest legacy, to which Maya Angelou replied: “Your legacy is every single life you’ve touched”. Ultimately, it’s what we do in our day-to-day, rather than any kind of big gestures, or big events.
I think our ideas around purpose are very much quantitative, rather than qualitative. That’s why some people really struggle with the idea of purpose, because it has this pressure or expectation of “greatness” or “impact”, which is often attached to size – I guess that’s a very patriarchal way of looking at things, if you think about it. The conflict within many therapists is exactly this: the quantitative aspect of impact, rather than the qualitative. For me, impact is when a person never smiles or makes eye contact in sessions, and then, one day, they do! Those moments will always give me more than any kind of statistics of how many people I’ve seen, and much better they feel, on some kind of scale. And unfortunately, we tend to apply the same to our sense of being enough: we see it as quantitative, rather than qualitative. It’s about more this, and more that; it’s about having, and getting; it’s about doing, and going; but it’s rarely about being.
But my question isn’t really about purpose, in itself. My question is about the second part of my client’s statement, that it couldn’t possibly be enough that we were just born, and that was it. Think about this – another piece of Oprah wisdom: think about all the circumstances, the hurdles, the dynamics, since the beginning of time, that had to come together for you to be here, right now, in this moment, on this Earth. If that isn’t enough, then what is? Anything else is just a bonus. The lives we touch, whatever accolades we receive, our contributions to the material realm, all of these things wouldn’t happen, if you, if I, weren’t here, right now.
Perhaps purpose is a by-product: something we find, or discover, or remember, when we begin the long process of accepting that we are enough, just by default of being born. Indeed, this may be a little radical: it forces us to look at ourselves, at our being, at how we are in any given moment, on any given day. It forces us to look at all the dynamics in our lives and reassess how we have constructed our lives. Are we being ourselves, or performing for others? Are our actions motivated by instinct, core feelings and desires, or by external expectations, constructs, and pressures? If we don’t consider ourselves enough, who are we living for? Others?
That doesn’t sound great to me. It’s hard work, I know. I feel it most days, these days. This reassessment of life, of who I am, what I do, why I do it, and how I do it. To dismantle something is painful sometimes, it means taking apart something that we know, and make it into something else, or leave it altogether. Additionally, life shouldn’t also be like this all the time. The author Jeff Brown wrote “Excessive analysis causes emotional paralysis”. Reassessing can be a very cognitive, thinking, process. In fact, even the other day, my own therapist told me that I think too much, that I don’t actually need to do any more thinking, about anything else. I need to just do, to just feel, to just be. To just be enough.