There’s an ancient story that goes like this:
Before we are born, our soul gets to choose who we will be in this lifetime. The soul chooses what its character shall be from amongst a myriad of possibilities. A guardian then accompanies us to help us be faithful to what we have chosen. And then, before we return to our embodiment, we pass across the plain of Forgetfulness and drink of the river of Unmindfulness. This has the effect of erasing from our memory the process we experienced and the choice we made. And so we are destined to live out some forgotten purpose.
It sounds like a New Age confabulation, right? But it’s Plato’s account of the Myth of Er.
Choosing Our Lot in Life
As James Hillman describes, “The ‘lot’ is the image that is your inheritance, your soul’s portion in the world order, and your place on earth, all compacted into a pattern that has been selected by your soul before you ever got here.”
The story is attractive for it gives us a sense of significance, a role to play. It also gives us agency. No matter how challenging our life, we chose it. This is all on purpose. Humans are meaning-making creatures (and we love a good story, too). This gives us all of that.
Mission and Vision
Organizations are exhorted to establish a mission and vision, a sort of raison d’être. The theory goes, it gives everyone a compass to operate by and thereby coordinates behaviors in murky areas. It’s the sheet of music to which we all play.
James Hillman wrote a great love offering to the individual’s sense of purpose in The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. This was the rare Jungian book to reach bestseller status, catapulted there by an endorsement from Oprah.
As he recounts, the soul’s code has been theorized in many cultures and appears with many names: genius, daimon, guardian angel, ochema, the ka or the ba, paradeigma, spirit. Whatever it is called, it feels like a calling, a sense of fate, and the essence of our character.
“Together they make up the ‘acorn theory,’” Hillman writes, “which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.”
The Example of MLK
Martin Luther King, Jr. understood his soul’s code.
“I always had a deep urge to serve humanity,” he wrote. MLK was using this sense of purpose to make decisions as early as 15. He repeatedly read Henry David Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” the perfect primer for the activist King was to become.
And, it was Dr. King’s sense of purpose that guided him and his wife, Coretta Scott King, when they considered Martin’s first professional role. He’d been offered positions in academia and the ministry in both the South and the North. Though the other positions held great attraction, they intentionally decided to return to the South, to segregation, where MLK would be a minister in Montgomery, Alabama. Could Dr. King have fulfilled his unique destiny as a professor in a northern city?
All of this serves as a preamble encouraging you to get to know your purpose. If you are in any way dissatisfied with your work, I can think of no better antidote than to discover your purpose and find ways to fulfill it right where you are. This will help you on any quest to seek a better fit elsewhere.
When We Don’t Know Our Purpose
When you don’t know your purpose, you will feel restless and empty. You might chase after things, particularly external, material things, to make you feel whole. You may get caught up in acquiring things (both material possessions and also accomplishments and degrees), and you might indulge in addictions. These are attempts to fill the void and they will always fall flat, causing you to quest after more like a hungry ghost.
When confronted with choices, you may be indecisive or flip-flop. This could lead others to question your judgment.
Or, you might make poor choices because you have nothing by which you can measure your decisions. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his purpose in mind when he selected his partner in life, Coretta. Martin and Coretta talked about racial and economic injustice in their first meeting, inspiring him to tell her:
“So you can do something else besides sing? You’ve got a good mind also. You have everything I ever wanted in a woman. We ought to get married someday.”
He was so decisive because he knew what he had come here to do. He writes: “I didn’t want a wife I couldn’t communicate with. I had to have a wife who would be as dedicated as I was. I wish I could say that I led her down this path, but I must say we went down it together because she was as actively involved and concerned when we met as she is now.”
When we don’t have clarity of purpose, our life becomes the result of a hodge-podge collection of choices and happenstance. You might find you have descended far up a ladder in your career, only to discover that your ladder has been on the wrong wall.
With no compass point to guide you, you may even end up feeling lost or stuck, unable to get a read on which direction to go.
So, how do we discover our purpose?
To discover our purpose, we need to reflect on what has inspired us in the past.
What have we always longed for? What have we always loved?
We also need to listen to the still, small voice within. When you get yourself grounded and centered through practices like belly breathing, meditation, or yoga, what are the little inklings that begin to rise to the surface?
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Our purpose gives us a true North. It establishes a criterion by which we can measure any choice. It allows us to plow full steam ahead, for we know that none of our motion will be wasted in futile pursuit. It imbues life itself with a sense of meaning and that meaning can give sustenance on a journey that has trenches and troughs through which we must tread.
I’m Dr. Kira Swanson and I’m a Life Coach for people who dread Monday. I work with corporate misfits who feel unfulfilled in their work. Together, we tune into what they really want, find new perspectives, and summon the courage to take bold action. Whether it’s striking out on their own, landing in a new job, or thriving right where they are, I help my clients to Love Monday.
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