Are you living your purpose?

I used to long to find my purpose in life.

I imagined it as a place I was meant to be, a career I was meant to follow, an ideal or a teaching or talent that would bring me fulfilment in life if I just poured my whole self into it.

I thought I had found it in being a “problem-solver” of the intellectual kind. But however great it seemed at first, thinking for a living eventually grew old.

I wasn’t fulfilled by mastering complex ethical problems, and as my job in ethics came to an end I began to feel increasingly devoid of purpose and even prospects.

My grand spiritual quest was in stasis, my PhD ran into a brick wall, and the books I wrote didn’t provide the sense of purpose, direction, or income I’d hoped for.

The four temperaments taught me that ideals and meaning and therefore purpose in life were fundamental to my sense of self and my worldview. Yet thanks to my deeply pessimistic and world-weary outlook, I regarded these things as unreal.

Getting into positive thinking via the Abraham Hicks material has helped me enormously. But it only just occurred to me that I’ve still been looking at the world through the filter of my past disenchantment and despair of any real meaning or purpose.

What is purpose?

The real reason we want purpose is because we think it will feel good when we have it.

Try to analyse purpose and it loses its mystery.

Purpose is, after all, just an intention or a goal. It’s what you pro-pose or put forth.

But melancholics won’t be content with an arbitrary goal or a self-generated intention.

By our very temperament, we desire something greater and more powerful than ourselves, and that means something inherently mysterious.

That’s why all my attempted goals and paths lost their appeal as soon as I considered trying to make some kind of career out of them: what I sought was, by definition, to reduce them to predictable, repeatable and therefore non-mysterious processes or outcomes.

Mysterious power

And yet there was something I had encountered however briefly in my years of searching. I came upon it while trying to emulate the “acting without acting” of the Daoist canon. I think I hit upon it by accident and succeeded because there were no instructions, no real method, just a description and a feeling.

What I had was best described as a “mysterious power”, a product of faith, feeling, and intuition that I allowed intermittently to flow.

I found it again last night, trying to put my baby daughter to sleep.

I remembered the sense of ease, the feeling of alignment, the certainty (faith) that it would work because (mystery) I was aligning myself with this great power that creates, guides, and nourishes all things.

The feeling is most like those dreams where you discover you can fly just by focusing in a particular way with a kind of expectation and gentle certainty that allows you to find invisible footholds in the air, or simply levitate as easily as drawing in a deep breath.

It’s the feeling you get when you change ever so slightly the angle or focus with which you regard a familiar scene like your own living room. Everything changes and you suddenly appreciate it in a whole new light with a feeling of clarity and buoyancy like a gust of wind has filled the room and stirred everything in it.

Or like a lens suddenly coming into focus, and everything is sharp and crisp and you feel your control over that act of focusing, while everything else is securely in the flow of that mysterious power.

I never knew what to call it, and I tended to lose it in the past as soon as I ran into cold hard thoughts about “reality”.

But last night I allowed it to come to the fore, and with it came a shift in perspective. I wasn’t exhaustedly trying to get my daughter to sleep so my wife and I could relax, instead I was lovingly helping her to sleep so she could rest and refresh and grow.

With this mysterious power guiding me, buoying me and uplifting me I felt not only that I had the energy and the patience I needed, but also the sensitivity and the guidance to find the easiest and best path forward.

Better yet, that by staying in this feeling of power I was already on the right path, and everything else was coming together to make it work out perfectly.

Is purpose right for melancholics?

Whatever this thing is that I find fulfilling, it doesn’t match the idea of purpose. It’s much more like a way of being than an external goal – yet it is satisfying in the way that I always imagined an explicit purpose or direction would be.

It suits the melancholic longing for authenticity, meaning and the ideal.

So maybe that’s the purpose of life for a melancholic: to find authenticity, meaning, and the ideal; not for the sake of accomplishing other tasks, but as the goal in and of itself.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is a bit like living in a fog. You can hear everything going on around you, but you can’t really see where you are going. This can lead to worry and anxiety, but it is also what makes us desire the ideal – because the ideal is always right no matter what is going on around you.

And when you know how to act, how to be, then you can at last be authentically yourself.

Who is in control?

Yesterday a friend showed me Lamentations 3, and its relevance to my current project amazed me. :

He has driven me away and made me walk
    in darkness rather than light;
 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
    again and again, all day long…

The chapter is ruthless, full of broken teeth, mangled bodies, bitterness and mockery. And it is God who inflicts all this on Jeremiah. When did you last hear that God has “made me walk in darkness rather than light”? It doesn’t sound right, as though all the meanings are inverted. It’s as if someone set out to write the opposite of “the Lord is my shepherd”.

But then it changes:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

Now this is hardly a reassuring message at first glance. It’s as if he’s saying “God beat me to a bloody pulp, but at least he didn’t kill me!” But to me it has a different significance. To me it says that God is in control of everything, and even in the darkest moments of suffering and despair, God is still in control.

This isn’t meant to be soothing or inspirational – it’s radical and transformative. We think we are in control, and that God is this thing or this guy who wants to help us, and if we’re really good or really repentant or practice talking to him often enough then things will start to go our way. And if things don’t go our way, it’s just because we haven’t tried hard enough, or we don’t really believe, or we’re being tested, or we’re not truly penitent.

What’s really going on is that God is in control. Not just in some abstract or distant way, but deeper than our own sense of pride and agency would have us know. “Without Me you can do nothing,” and that’s putting it mildly.

In technical terms, here’s how Aquinas states it:

God moves man to act, not only by proposing the appetible to the senses, or by effecting a change in his body, but also by moving the will itself; because every movement either of the will or of nature, proceeds from God as the First Mover. And just as it is not incompatible with nature that the natural movement be from God as the First Mover, inasmuch as nature is an instrument of God moving it: so it is not contrary to the essence of a voluntary act, that it proceed from God, inasmuch as the will is moved by God.

To say that you have free will does not mean you are like God. You are not able to control yourself, secure your own salvation, or even practice virtue independent of God’s will. Any movement of your will is dependent on God’s will.

The impression that you are thinking and acting and willing independent of God’s will is the illusion we call ‘Pride’. The impression that the buck stops with you is false, and both the cause and symptom of sin and suffering.

God is in control, absolutely. What makes Lamentations 3 so striking is that Jeremiah recognises God’s control, and ascribes to God responsibility for his suffering. He doesn’t succumb to the illusion that God is not in control.

This is radical, but it is also very mysterious. It means that in our sin and ignorance, in the midst of this illusion of self-sufficiency and control, God is nonetheless still in control.

So why do we suffer? Why undergo this whole bewildering drama and illusion if God could stop it right away?

This question has occupied theologians and philosophers for millennia. There are complex and nuanced answers that are beyond the scope of this post, but the bottom line is that God is in complete control, there is a purpose to it all, and that purpose is most definitely a mystery. As Julian of Norwich wrote after a vision:

“Sin is behovely (useful or necessary), but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”