“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have all experienced injustice in life.
During those times especially, we may have questioned if there is a “purpose.” The suffering we witness, if not experience directly, requires a level of empathy and resilience that not all can master.
I used to wonder if I could truly choose my level of suffering—and it became a perception-controlling experiment. Visualization verified that what I reflected on impacted my mood.
Happiness seems to have loopholes. We often feel that we can only be happy if, and when, something happens. The “how” and “why” play a role too. But, the truth is we could be happy right now.
What if we removed attachment from outcomes to events? This is not a new concept. All attachment leads to suffering.
What if suffering leads to purpose?
I once left a graduate program because I was disillusioned with aspects of the education system. I had to educate those in charge, and even my cooperating teacher, about students with learning disabilities, and how to be more sensitive and empathetic to students’ struggles. I sat with a student who was overbooked with activities and under tremendous pressure, and said to him, “Sometimes, teachers forget what it’s like to be a student.”
When I tried to console another student, my cooperating teacher said, “Stick to teaching English.”
Later, when I left the program, I passed on my experience to the principal of the school. That was enough for me to feel I had made a small difference. For me, it felt like purpose.
However, not all suffering is necessary for growth or purpose, in the same way that detachment from outcomes or events does not always equate happiness.
I idealized purpose. I thought it meant success. I thought leaving my school program was a societal failure. However, I made a greater difference by leaving—for my students and the faculty that I had been contact with.
Failure, starting over, taking the detour instead of original route, and fighting obstacles, are also part of purpose.
The idea of purpose stuck with me. It wasn’t about a meaning because not everything has a meaning or a why. Not every lived event is for one’s benefit. For example, if a friend experienced a senseless tragedy, would your comforting words be that they could use it to do good in the world? Probably not. They may be, “Wow, this is tragic.” It would be a reaction.
Reactions. Gut feelings. Forgot about those. Maybe they have some purpose. After all, how do we process anything unless we experience layers of emotions and reactions? The truth is we don’t. We are not robots.
We suffer because we desire. We feel because we look for meaning. We live so that we may have a purpose.
Our purpose may not come to us right away, but may become apparent after a major setback that we overcome. For me, mine was teaching and finding transparency on that route. Balance was not being taught. Life skills were neglected. Connection was longed for.
I did not understand every gut feeling, except in order to be happy and in order to take a stance on something, I had to leave and make my intentions clear.
We do not have to understand anything to appreciate life. It’s not in the understanding, it’s in the experiencing.
Reason is not the answer either. Feeling has more meaning than fact. Unless feeling is a knowing that we experience and superior to reason. Madness—when feelings and facts are both distorted—rules this theory out. Let’s assume madness doesn’t play a role. Feeling is gravity. It weighs us. It makes us human. It brings us back.
It’s not how to live but what to live for. Viktor Frankl understood that one can endure any how for a strong enough why.
I differ in my explanation of life where meaning and purpose collide—collide as in conflict with one another. Do you have a meaningful life? Not always. Are you living with purpose? That’s a choice we can make.
A person in a jail cell cannot always find meaning in their life, but a person can be in a prison of their own making wherever they go.
Purpose is a choice in how one responds to life with or without meaning. And, that has something to do with character, determination, integrity—the key elements of all the greats.
You can’t play with purpose—you either have it or you don’t. Meanings can be made up. Feelings can be persuaded. The rest is fluid. Deciding to not suffer via detachment to life is not living life. It misses the point.
Your character may be flawed, but the beauty of purpose is that you get to live out your truth. Your response to life, your way. So, yes, we are back to that. It influences our feelings of being empowered. It creates its own detachment from outcomes because inner truth and integrity fuel your fire.
It dares to create where there is lack. It makes room for those without. It leads where no one else will go. It stays where not one person can stand to remain. And it suffers. Yes, it suffers. More often than not, more than most. But it is beautiful, it is real, it is purpose.
No one can turn their back on purpose once they have found it. It’s elusive yet always there. It reaches us where we thought we could not be woken. It shakes us until we feel. It shelters us from the storm. It doesn’t seek to change or convince the nature of one’s circumstances.
It creates abundance in character and the greatest evolutionary tool—love. It softens those jealous of you, it persuades those who would ridicule, and it humbles and strengthens you. You do not have to be rich. You do not have to be well- known.
Whatever you are facing, make room for purpose.
Author: Sarah Jeanne Browne
Editor: Lieselle Davidson