by Jock Cameron
“the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists”.
One of the perennial themes for discussion at the Forum is purpose. Behind all of our efforts and activity, what is it that directs us? What is the reason for doing?
While most of us recognise the importance of being purposeful, it’s actually difficult to determine where our sense of purpose comes from. And this is never truer than in the age of COVID: overnight, our plans and activities have been put on hold.
Some of us are being confronted with immediate anxiety about job security and finances. But others are more experiencing a restlessness as we look for something to fill our empty days. We’re not too worried about whether it’s meaningful, so long as we don’t have to think too much! Some of us might find a sinkhole in Netflix or start exercising manically; whatever it takes to turn that sense of restlessness and unease off!
In these COVID days, it’s a temptation for our sense of purpose to be reduced to simply trying to fill the hours. Underneath though, it’s hard to escape the nagging conviction that we’re not really living; that we’re more just putting our lives on hold. Our rationale can be that we will get on with life when things return to normal. But we’re missing the main point about purpose: it doesn’t come from outside of us, it comes from within us. We don’t find our purpose in our work or activities; rather our work and activities need to be filled with a sense of purpose that emanates from within us.
If human beings are one-part spiritual, it’s from our inner spiritual well that we derive our sense of purpose. Why have I been put on this planet in this age and place? What is it that I have to contribute that no one else can? Answering these most fundamental questions can often seem impossible. We don’t really even know where to begin. Perhaps in the initial instance it might be helpful to think of our purpose as to find our purpose.
I want to suggest that COVID might actually be a blessing in disguise. If we can resist the immediate temptation to fill our empty space with meaningless activity or numb ourselves with binge TV, perhaps in the emptiness we will discover something profound, heretofore unnoticed. The mystics describe times like COVID as a liminal space. Liminal space is the space between things, between something old and something new, something known and something unknown. And it’s the liminal space that is the most spiritually productive in our lives. It’s where our attention becomes available to something more than the daily routine, which has been disrupted. The mystics throughout the ages have retreated into the liminal space of the desert to hear what otherwise was inaudible in the din of daily life. Is it possible for us that COVID might become a kind of desert, a liminal space in which we might discover a deeper sense of purpose?
At the Forum we talk about purpose in terms of finding a rationale for our lives that’s bigger than self. We believe that if you want to be truly fulfilled, then you have to learn to serve others. And while, in some ways, this cuts against our natural grain, when we orient our lives to serving others, then meaning floods in. It’s as if our orientation to serve puts us in the current of something bigger.
Sadly, the rush of meaning that comes from serving others can be short-lived. Pretty soon we discover that we don’t have enough inner resources to keep that kind of focus for very long. We over-extend our supply lines and then suffer burn-out. And after such an experience we are all inclined to conclude that perhaps serving others is an idealistic notion that ends in disappointment.
However, at this juncture, it’s important not to lose heart. Our experience is teaching us something: that we need to be fed in order to feed others. We cannot give for very long what we do not have. This realisation is the beginning of a new, grounding humility. It teaches us to draw on a strength that comes from beyond ourselves. It teaches us about the need to become truly connected. Perhaps we have different ways to describe this connection. Some of us may describe it as connection to God and others in less explicit terms.
But in order to be a serving person, or indeed a servant leader, we need to develop the kind of spiritual connectedness that can sustain a meaningful life. Our initial disappointments are designed to point us towards the Source, to discover that we can become more by becoming less. That our reach will be more determined by what we are connected to than by our own finite resources.
But don’t get overly anxious about trying to figure out your purpose: if it’s true that you’ve been made with one, then it will find you as much as you might seek to find it. There’s an energy out there, or indeed a Person, who is looking to see you connected, helping you find your place in the scheme of things. Perhaps this is the beginning of all authentic spirituality: to have faith that there’s something, someone out there looking to help us find our way. If that were true, it would indeed be a cause for optimism and a source of strength for the servant leader.