A sense of purpose is what drives many of us. But it may not be the way to happiness.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, the Benedictine monk best known for his work on gratitude, has suggested that living a good life is a matter of learning how to strike a creative balance between meaning and purpose — which raises an important distinction between words that are often used interchangeably.
Meaning, he says, can have no purpose. Consider, for example, the “purpose” of dance. Music. A bird. Leaving aside points about the role of birds in nature, one can experience art, people, nature as meaningful in a way that is wholly different and independent from whatever purpose they might serve.
Yet “purpose” is what we are most often caught up with. The purpose of our work. The purpose of encouraging our children to do well in school. The purpose of social activism. The purpose of having a clean house. Whatever goal we set for ourselves, it is the purpose that gets most of our attention.
In a predominant focus on purpose, however, we often miss the meaning of life — which is where the experience of gratification, or happiness, lies. Or, to put this another way, sometimes we just need to relax our pursuit of a purpose-driven life in order to enjoy the point of it all.
I discovered this once, about 15 years ago, when I traveled from New York City to vacation for the first time in northern California. For the low-key portion of the trip, my partner and I stayed in a beautiful inn, called The Old Milano, in a small coastal town about three hours north of San Francisco called Gualala. Over three days, it seemed we had nothing but time: time to lie on the cove-shaped beach, to enjoy delicious meals, to sleep late. But what made the biggest impression was the time I spent sitting in an adirondack chair, looking out at the Pacific Ocean, reading, writing, and watching the waves crash against an enormous boulder.
Living in New York City, I, like so many people, had typically spent my days racing from one seemingly all-important activity to another. And collectively, somehow, it seemed that put us New Yorkers at the center of the universe. But being in this quiet, spectacularly beautiful place, I could see how small we humans were in comparison. I could recognize the truth that we really all are just passing through — through a place and time and mystery much bigger than us all.
That truth, of course, was and is there all along. But it took being still — being without purpose — to experience it: the wonder of life. This, I think, is what Brother David means by the importance of striking a balance between meaning and purpose.
When we focus only on our purpose, even if it is a laudatory one, we can miss the meaning.But when we pause in the pursuit of our purpose, the meaning is right there. Clear, present, instantaneous.
For me: Children provide the meaning. Love provides the meaning. Giving provides the meaning. Nature provides the meaning. Meditation provides the meaning. Buddhist and other spiritual teachings provide the meaning. A hike with a friend provides the meaning.
But balance, as Brother David says, is key. If I’d spent the rest of my days sitting on that adirondack chair, I would not be doing my part for this life I’ve been given. Purpose and meaning go hand-in-hand in the well liven life. So it is important to be still, and it is equally important to stand up for the things one believes in, whether that is working to address climate change, help the sick, or defend an innocent man in court.
Yet we must never delude ourselves into thinking our purpose is more important than life itself. And we would help ourselves to keep in mind what the ancients also knew: The good life is a life lived in balance. Who knows, it might even be the very thing today’s distinctly modern challenges are inviting us to learn, once again.
What do you think?
For more from Brother David, check out Gratefulness.org. They also have a “Word for the Day” you can receive by email.