Dropping the Struggle for Meaning

Posted on in On Our Radar by Roger Housden


The movement toward personal meaning—the level of becoming, or individuation—is usually associated with having a purpose, with the journey of becoming someone through action and some form of achievement in the world, whether it be raising a child, launching a business, or performing an act of service. Find your purpose, and your meaning will follow, the idea goes, because purpose can bring a sense of order into what might otherwise feel like a random jumble of events.

I once took a workshop in which we were asked to define our purpose. I sat there for a few moments with the usual tropes running through my mind, but nothing seemed to fit. I was stumped. Then I realized that I saw purpose in a way that was intrinsically different from flowcharts and graphs.

I could not say how my purpose was distinct from whatever I was doing or not doing in the moment. If there was a pattern to my life, in terms of my activities and my relationship to the world, I experienced it as a secret that was revealing itself to me moment by moment, step by step. It has never been the result of a five-year plan.

It was a secret because it was not accessible to my conscious mind. It lay deeper than that, and sometimes it secreted its perfume and sometimes it didn’t. That’s why systems and maps prescribed by others are unlikely to catch our scent on the wind: because our deeper purpose leaves a trace that only we can recognize.

The pattern of our existence—our original template, you could say—may emerge in the form of some vague prompting, or as a genuine delight, or as an affinity for a particular activity. It might be the moment when long-held values finally translate into action, as happened for Jena Lee Nardella. She left college with an overwhelming desire to bring a thousand wells to African villages. She was motivated by her Christian faith and by a spontaneous desire to respond to the needs of others.

The result was Blood: Water, an organization that has brought water to millions of people all over Africa. Jena started out with the desire to change the world. Ten years later, having experienced firsthand both the brokenness and the beauty in our human condition, she realized that her deepest purpose was not, after all, to change the world but to love it. Her work became less driven by results. She relaxed into an appreciation and an acceptance of the process along the way.

road between mountains

You might find your true purpose—your particular, authentic expression of being—through a serendipitous encounter. It might come as an intuition, some coincidence or sudden memory, like a reminder, apparently unrelated to your situation. However it comes, however fleetingly, it will feel significant. It may seem trivial, but that moment may be significant in a way that a major life event turns out not to be. Our job then is to listen, to listen and catch the lilt in the voice of the wind.

Many Western cultures hold that each individual has his own unique calling or pattern of potentiality that he is born with. The Greeks called it your daimon, the Romans called it your genius, the Christians your guardian angel. The Romantics, like John Keats, believed the call comes from the heart. It is both within you and also not in you. It is the pattern of your unique existence that you are called on to decipher. It is the seed you were born with that wants to bear fruit, and it carries your fate.

There is no one and never will there be anyone just like you. That is why your life, however it shows up, is your unique purpose. Whatever is happening, whatever you are doing, that is the expression of your purpose right now. So look around you. Your unfolding life is your gift to the world. It is a gift that no one else can offer.

But that doesn’t mean our individual story is already written and our life just lives itself out. It doesn’t mean there is an unalterable script somewhere deep in our bones. That would be fatalism. It would be to say that everything is in the hands of the gods, that all we have to do is to sit back and see what happens. But no. Everything is in play until the very end. We live the paradox: our life will always be a mystery, imponderable, and it will always be our responsibility.

The word fate in the ancient Greek meant “a portion.” Fate is only a portion of what happens, not, as fatalism would have it, the whole enchilada. The Greek idea of fate, rather than fatalism, is this: stuff happens. It happens in the convergence of different forces. Fate has a portion—a part—to play. Our personal energy, our authentic core, is also a portion. The context, the situation we are in, is another portion. The confluence of these forces at any one moment is expressed today as chaos theory. Life comes to us and through us out of left field. We are not in charge.

Roger Housden is the author of Dropping the Struggle and numerous other books, including the best-selling Ten Poems series, which began in 2001 with Ten Poems to Change Your Life and ended with Ten Poems to Say Goodbye in 2012. Excerpted with permission from Dropping the Struggle: Seven Ways to Love the Life You Have. © 2016 by Roger Housden. RogerHousden.com

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