In my 20s, the question plagued me. Although I had been teaching yoga, working for myself and doing many things I loved, I allowed a specific anxiety to haunt me. “What is my life’s purpose?” is a question I had been taught to believe needed to be answered. Oprah taught me. Fellow yogis taught me. All of the new age, oh so spiritual, self help culture of which I was a part taught me. I pondered and wrote lists. I journaled about it, read books about it, talked to friends about it. Mostly, I agonized about it. “What is my purpose?” I begged the God of my understanding to tell me the answer.
Over a decade later, I have come to a conclusion. “Your life’s purpose” as a solid, singular, constant pursuit one can discover, go after, and then be completely fulfilled and settled for the rest of her/his existence is complete and udder bull crap. It’s hogwash. It’s an anxiety-producing concept that sells a hell of a lot of books by creating and then promising to solve a problem that never existed in the first place. It is a manifestation of extreme privilege, to have the time to consider such a thing exists. And it is yet another damaging concept on a long list of the concepts I was taught to believe in as a young, middle class, white person. Along with myths about body shape, worthiness, anger and what I thought I deserved, I’m happy to release the outrageous idea that my life should and could serve a single purpose, that I haven’t yet unearthed it, and that there is something wrong with me because I have not.
More than being just a bizarre concept that supports the self help industry’s bottom line, the “what is your life’s purpose” myth is such a gross example of privilege. Only in a country, or, in parts of a country in which its population is not struggling with violence or marginalization or poverty can one be found having the time and space to consider such an idea. I recently heard a comedian say that white people love jigsaw puzzles because only people with privilege think it’s fun to go to a store and buy a problem. This is how I feel about the life’s purpose mythology. We are creating a question that has no answer and then plaguing ourselves with the guilt and anxiety of not having it solved.
The life’s purpose theory also goes against the greatest wisdom we can glean from all the world’s spiritual traditions. Psalm 46 reminds us to be still and know that God exists. When we realize that we are truly incapable of controlling every little thing in our lives, we get to surrender our will to over to God. This is where we find peace, release from anxiety, freedom from the need to force and manipulate. Buddhism, Hinduism, and the greatest teachers of Yoga remind us to be in this present moment. In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past, and then project into a hypothetical future, we rob ourselves of the perfection of this moment. Believing that my life is not the way it should be currently is an illusion. And it is agony. Believing that as soon as I know or get or create something, anything, I will be happy and free from dissatisfaction always leads to more dissatisfaction. The only peace to be had occurs right now. An obsession with a future in which we will finally be satisfied will always, always cause us suffering.
As I age, I also realize that my purpose shifts from moment to moment all day long. In my office, sometimes my purpose to see and understand and sit in suffering with a client, sometimes it is to apply a little tough love, sometimes it is to just shut up, listen, and learn. In my car my purpose is to breathe and send blessings to the lady in the SUV who is on her phone and might just kill us all. In my home my purpose is to be kind and loving to my partner, who is capable of telling me so, so many stories about the specifics of both hockey and Star Wars. And when I’m alone my purpose is to be compassionate and gentle with the most tender parts of myself, which is way more than I can achieve on a lot of days.
In the land of self help mythology the answer to the life’s purpose question is usually characterized as something that’s right there, just beyond your reach. Luckily, if you buy this book or this online seminar or attend this retreat or yoga weekend with other anxious people, it can finally be yours. This make believe “problem” is where we have been taught to channel so much of our anxiety. The promise is once I know the answer I will feel safe, the angst and uncertainty about the worthiness of my life will disappear. But the anxiety exists because we have asked the question. Similar to diet culture, the money making machine has brainwashed us to believe a dilemma exists and then it will happily sell you the only way to fix it. True freedom lies in the realization that there is nothing wrong with my body, with my life, as they exist in this moment. And when I’m in the moment, my purpose is so obvious, so easy, and free of charge.