Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Danielle LaSusa PhD.
In this unsettling time, many of us are confronting huge questions about life’s purpose. Maybe you’ve been laid off or your business has dried up. Maybe you’re spending more time at home with your family, and your values and priorities have shifted. Maybe you’re realizing that the old status quo wasn’t working all that well for you — and for many people in your community — to begin with. As our usual routines and activities have become upended, we are, individually and collectively, facing a crisis of meaning. A lot of us find ourselves asking: What’s the point of any of this?
We’ve long held the cultural myth that we’re all supposed to “find our purpose.” We are told: Once you find your purpose, you will be fulfilled, content, and at peace. You will know why you are here. The implication is that, if you are feeling like your current life lacks meaning, you must roam the earth, looking for your purpose as if it’s a lost puppy.
There’s something very comforting about this story, particularly as we try to make sense of this once-in-a-century health crisis and many centuries of systemic racial injustice. We want to believe, in all this madness, that there is some order or plan out there for us. But the truth of the matter may be more challenging, and here it is: Your purpose is not something you find; it’s something you create. (Tweet this.)
“Existence Precedes Essence”
In his provocative essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre claims that human beings do not come into this world with a predetermined purpose. We are not like a paper cutter, invented by an intelligent mind, to perform a specific function — namely, cutting paper. We are not born into this world with a plan, a map, or a destiny. The divine forces did not touch your forehead in utero and declare your fate: “Thou shalt be a YouTube phenomenon.”
No, instead we just show up on the scene through the accident of evolution, sporting these big brains that allow us to reflect on ourselves and ask questions about meaning. As Sartre puts it, “existence precedes essence.”
Add to this fact the 21st century American culture that encourages you to be your own brand, to consume your way to an identity, to equate your career with your self-worth, and to do so effortlessly, despite the invisible weights and barriers of systemic oppression, you’re left standing here in this chaotic, modern moment, trying to figure out what to do with it all.
“You Are Condemned to Be Free”
This moment, as we know, is especially chaotic. The big, wide, globalized world is full of urgent problems that need solving. Social media provides both the opportunity to have a huge impact and the unrelenting pressure to compare yourself to everyone else. You likely have an overwhelming feeling of not knowing enough, doing enough, or being enough, and a desperate urge for someone or something to tell you what you’re supposed to do. You don’t have generations of strong, tried-and-true models to guide you. You have too many options to choose from and flimsy criteria for choosing. You are required to be your own guide, and your very value as a human being seems to hang in the balance.
It’s scary. It’s overwhelming. It’s lonely. As Sartre says, you are “condemned to be free.”
In generations past and in many communities, this lack of innate purpose may not be felt as acutely. You’re a cobbler because your father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were cobblers. You push a button at the button factory because it’s the only factory in town. “Purpose” is not synonymous with “career.”
Indeed, the hand-wringing about purpose tends to happen when you have a sense that you have some choice in the matter and some freedom and resources with which to choose. A single college grad who can crash in his parents’ spare room until he figures it out has a lot more options from which to choose, and more time and brain space to decide, than a single mother with a G.E.D. who is trying to hold down multiple jobs without reliable childcare. Both may be feeling a lack of purposefulness in their current situation, but the former has the luxury of turning it into a full-blown existential crisis.
The American narrative that you can be whatever you set your mind to ignores the realities of these limiting forces, leaving many people feeling caught between a pandemic and a hard place.
But maybe there is still some room for freedom and meaning here, because our sense of purpose is not necessarily about what we have or what we are doing, but instead about how we relate to and reflect on our past and present circumstances.
Your Purpose Is Your Story
Your purpose is nothing more than the story you tell. Those people out there who say they’ve “found their purpose” really just mean that they’ve been able to tell themselves a coherent and powerful story about their experiences, values, and actions. They see their lives and work as meaningful because they’ve been able to frame their past as a source of learning, teaching lessons and values, which they carry with them into their future endeavors.
A kid that grows up hungry starts a charity to feed impoverished youth. A dumped and heartbroken lover soon meets the one who becomes a lifelong partner. An athlete who gets cut from the high school varsity team goes on to become one of the biggest pro players in the world. These failures and hardships feel meaningless at the time, but then, in retrospect, become woven into a story where they take on great significance.
This transformation requires a recognition — by which I mean a re-cognition, a reframing, a reimagining — of your past and/or present experiences (and often of your most painful and challenging experiences, by the way) as a deep source of meaning and wisdom. The single mother working overtime may see her life and work as deeply meaningful because it is in service to her children and their futures.
I agree with Sartre, who says that we can shape our stories of meaning into whatever we want them to be. We may not control where we are born, the bodies or families we have, or what happens to us, but we can always control the story we tell about what happens to us.
Of course, this claim gets complicated when we think about how the stories we’ve been told by our parents, our culture, our schools, our religions, our friends, etc. impact and influence our own stories. There will inevitably be some programming there to reckon with, and, again, not everyone has the same access to resources and time to do that reckoning. Yet, it seems true to me that in everyone, there is wiggle room, a space between stimulus and response, where we are able to re-interpret our lives.
I know this process first hand. After the birth of my daughter, I experienced postpartum psychosis, a horrific and terrifying mental health crisis that felt, at best, like a random tragedy — and at worst, like a personal failing. A year after my hospitalization, I was lost in a deep depression. I felt broken, trapped, powerless. One night, I remember thinking: This can’t be the end of my story. I have to integrate this experience into my life in a meaningful way.
After much hesitation, fear, and self-doubt, I decided to share my story publicly and to start my current Philosophical Coaching practice, in which I help moms grapple with what it means to create a person. As my practice grows, I see my past experiences — as a philosopher in a dwindling academic job market, as a teacher interested in self-development and self-understanding, and as a struggling new mom — cohering in this new, meaningful path for my life. But I know that this is a story I tell about my experiences and resources, and not my divine, pre-ordained future.
Maybe it feels unsatisfying to have to be the author of your own story. But the truth is that it was never any other way. Your human life is your ultimate creative act. And it just so happens that when you can reframe your past, whatever it may be, into a source of wisdom, you begin to feel an immense sense of gratitude for all your experiences, good and bad. You develop a clarity about what’s really important to you, a sense of meaningfulness to your actions, and a feeling that you’re right where you should be.
It’s almost as if you’ve found your purpose.