Finding Purpose

At the beginning of the semester, I asked my students a simple question. See, I teach an unusual class, a core requirement that fulfills not just a social science or humanity requirement but also fulfills my university’s diversity requirement. In practical terms, that means that students working on satisfying their general education requirement can take just my class instead of having to take two classes to satisfy the same requirement.

So I already know why my classes are packed every semester. I know why they’re there. And it’s pretty damn boring. So this semester I handed out cards and asked them to answer a question for me: what do you hope you learn in this class? I explained to them, you’re here for 16 weeks. 16 weeks that can be like a prison sentence, each of you just waiting for the warden to open the doors, give you your two requirement credits, and let you free – or we can find some way to make those 16 weeks worth your while, some way for each of you to leave this classroom with something of value to you.

When I went through the cards at the end of the day, there were a few people who’d taken up the challenge, but well over ¾ of them gave the same answer: I’m just here for the requirement. They chose prison over learning, jail over purpose.

Wow. I mean, just – wow.

Most people find themselves doing things for no real purpose at all. It’s just “what’s done”.

Think about that. How many things do you do that you “need” to do or “simply must” – without having any greater purpose of your own?

Many things we think of as ends in themselves really aren’t ends at all – they’re means to an end, means to our own ends. Passing a class, keeping a job, cleaning your house – these are things we do (hopefully!) for a greater purpose – not just towards a goal, but tin pursuit of our own personal growth.

But it’s easy – too easy – to lose track of that purpose and start treadmilling through our days as if getting through yet another day were the whole of life.

That path leads to despair!

The remedy is simple enough – - a few calm minutes with yourself every week or so to reflect on what you do any why you do it. Maybe a chart or mindmap listing your major activities and your purpose in doing them.

In the end, the key isn’t having the “best” or the “right” purpose (which only you could say, anyway) – the key is to lead a considered life, to find the threads that hold it all together and to be aware when the skein of your life slips out of your grasp.

How many things do you do every day that, if asked, you’d be hard pressed to explain why you’re doing them? How many tasks have no meaning at all for you, no real “fit” in the Big Picture of your life? Isn’t it time to start thinking about that — getting rid of the stuff that has no purpose, and learning anew to appreciate the important stuff whose purpose you’d forgotten along the way?

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