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THE NECESSITY OF PURPOSE

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British playwright George Bernard Shaw quipped,

I dread success.  To have succeeded is to have finished one’s business on earth, like the male spider who is killed by the female the moment he has succeeded in his courtship.  I like a state of continual becoming, with a goal in front and not behind.

Shaw could just have well said that he wanted his life to be embedded in a larger story—that he needed a larger purpose beyond self-interest that was worthy of his sustained interest and best efforts. Human beings are “purposive” creatures.  We are by nature outcome-oriented strivers.  The human brain is wired for forward-looking, goal-oriented living.  We possess what researchers call a “telic” state of mind.  The term is from the Greek word telos, which means end or purpose.  We instinctively seek out a compelling, larger story that orders and disciplines our daily experience. But we have a problem.  Though we strive for meaning and purpose—a larger story that integrates the particulars of our daily life—purpose is not granted to us as a birthright.  Many fail to find it.  American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton described the later half of the 20th century (and I would add the first part of the 21st century) as the “age of fragmentation.”  Lacking a stable and coherent core, most people live in a state of continual flux, without moorings, continuity and meaning.  Our days are marked by a chronic sense of disengagement and fragmentation.

“The fragmented self” Lifton writes, “is radically bereft of coherence and continuity, and extreme expression of dissociation.” 

Though we crave meaning and purpose, we are left with dislocated lives, out of place and out of rhythm.  We find ourselves uncertain about what it all means and what part our lives play in the larger story—if there is such a story. Purposelessness and the fragmentation that results from it is the enemy of our souls.  A fragmented life is a life deprived of a larger, coherent story, a life without meaningful connections and worthy ends.  And we cannot function properly if we are isolated and incomplete, detached and divided, living a small, compartmentalized life, divided into meaningless bits and pieces. Barca a vela As nineteenth century Scottish historian and literary critic Thomas Carlyle observed,

“The man without purpose is like a ship without a rudder—a waif, a nothing, a no-man.”

In the words of American preacher and author Harry Emerson Fosdick,

Difficult however, though it is to save life from fragmentariness, the penalty for failure is terrific—a harassed, distracted life, drawn and quartered, that knows no serenity.

And so, we must find purpose as surely as we must secure food and water.  We need purpose if we are to function effectively as healthy, genuine human beings. Gail Sheehy’s 1977 bestseller, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, reports the results of a three-year study of sixty thousand “successful” adult Americans from all walks of life.  One of her research questions was “By what criteria would most adults look back on their life and judge it a “success?” Her findings were surprising, both to Sheehy and her readers.  The responses were not financial, professional or even family oriented.  She writes,

Although one might have guessed the other qualities vital to well-being, would any child of a century that has conceived of God as dead and morality as relative ever have guessed that one of the chief requisites of a happy life is purpose?

Sheehy went on to say “yet the one constant in the lives of people who enjoy high well-being in every group I studied was devotion to some cause or purpose beyond themselves—a person who is not connected to something larger than himself has no hope of continuity, no breadth of vision, nothing in this world to surmount time or his own death.” The quest for purpose is echoed by Studs Terkel in his classic book, Working.  Terkel interviewed one hundred and thirty-three American workers to determine how they viewed work life.  He talked to men and women from all races and walks of life, reporters, longshoremen, doctors, maids, teachers and factory workers.  Terkel summarized his findings through the words of a twenty-eight year old staff writer and editor, Nora Watson.

I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job.  Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit.  Jobs are not big enough for people.”

Watson speaks for us all when she says,

Jobs…are too small for our spirit.  Jobs are not big enough for people.

Deep down, we know we need more than a mere job, more than a disconnected eight or ten hours a day.  We want—we need something more.  We need our work to count for more than a paycheck.  As Watson put it, “My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.”  Like her father, a minister, she wanted to fuse her life to her work.  She explained, “There is nothing I would enjoy more than a job that was so meaningful to me that I brought it home…When you ask most people who they are, they define themselves by their jobs. ‘I’m a doctor.’ ‘I’m a radio announcer.’ ‘I’m a carpenter.’  If someone asks me, I say, ‘I’m Nora Watson.’” We resonate with Nora Watson.  We instinctively flee from the sense of disconnection and fragmentation that she experienced in her work.  We seek something more than a paycheck.  We need our daily life—our job, relationships and activities to connect to something more.  Social scientist Robert Emmons sums it up well.

Embedding one’s finite life within a grander all-encompassing narrative appears to be a universal human need, as the inability to do so leads to despair and self-destructive behavior.

If purpose is a necessity, we cannot help but strive for it like we do any other necessity, whether food, water or air.  We desperately desire the varied parts of our life to fit together in a meaningful and valuable whole.  We must know why we exist and what our life means beyond the daily grind.  We must have something more, something more satisfying and substantive, something more meaningful than the particulars of any given day can bring. Can you articulate your “something more?” The Art of Virtue-Based Transformational Leadership provides a discussion on the importance of transcendent purpose, faith and hope to one’s leadership.  The book is available on this website.  Learning Leadership in a Changing World: Virtue and Effective Leadership in the 21st Centuryby this authorprovides a more thorough exploration of the relevance of purpose, faith and hope to leadership effectiveness.  The book, published by Palgrave-McMillan, will come out December 2014 and you will be able to purchase it on Amazon.com in both hardback and e-book formats.  Dan Taylor’s book Tell Me a Story provides a powerful discussion on the role that story plays in our personal lives and leadership.  This book is also available on Amazon.com.

About the Author: Mark McCloskey

Mark is a graduate of Miami University (BA) andBethel Seminary, Minnesota (MDiv). He earned his PhD at the University of South Florida in the College of Education, Department of Leadership Development. His focus of study was organizational leadership, adult education, and research and measurement.

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